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Court Discusses Setting Bail

The Facts:

Sometime in 1971, the plaintiffs brought a class action 10 against eight judges and other state officials including the State Attorney of Dade County, Florida, asking the federal district court to declare unconstitutional and to enjoin two practices of the defendants: the pretrial detention of arrestees without a judicial determination of probable cause, and the pretrial detention of indigent defendants solely because they were unable to post money bail as a condition of release.

A New York Criminal Lawyer said the trial court held for the plaintiffs on the first charge and for the defendants on the second.

Consequently, the State Attorney appealed on the probable cause question and the plaintiffs appealed on the bail question by separate appeals to this court.

The case was remanded for further findings on the probable cause issue and the district court reaffirmed its original ruling. A New York Criminal Lawyer said the court then affirmed on the probable cause issue with modifications. After defendant State Attorney petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari, the court issued an order holding the bail issue in abeyance pending the Supreme Court’s decision. The Court affirmed with modifications the holding on the probable cause issue.

On 11 November 1975, oral arguments on the bail aspect of the case were held. At that time, the court suggested that counsel give the Supreme Court of Florida an opportunity to revise its rule of criminal procedure regarding pretrial release, thus obviating the need for action by the Court. A New York Drug Possession Lawyer said the Florida Supreme Court had earlier rejected an amendment to its criminal rules that would have accommodated the plaintiffs’ wishes. On several occasions after the 1975 oral argument, plaintiffs’ attorneys presented their case to the Florida Supreme Court and to appropriate committees of the integrated Florida Bar. Finally, the Florida Supreme Court promulgated a new rule concerning bail, but declined to adopt the specific revisions requested by the plaintiffs.

The Issues:

Whether or not the traditional practice, that is, that persons charged in the courts with bailable offenses who were entitled to obtain pretrial freedom by paying or having a surety pay to the court a sum of money refundable upon appearance at trial, denies the indigent detainees equal protection of the law by conditioning their right to pretrial freedom on wealth-based criteria; whether or not indigent pretrial detainees are deprived of Fourteenth Amendment equal protection of the law when they are imprisoned solely because they cannot afford money bail set under a system that does not require the judge first to consider less financially onerous conditions of release.

The Ruling:

When a judge sets money bail in Florida, he creates two de facto classes: non-indigents who presumptively can pay for their pretrial freedom and indigents who surely cannot. This classification must be strictly scrutinized under the equal protection clause because it discriminates against indigent criminal defendants and directly affects their fundamental right to be presumed innocent and to prepare an adequate defense. Although Florida has a compelling interest in assuring a defendant’s appearance at trial, money bail is not necessary to promote that interest because the bail bondsman system eliminates the basic premise behind such bail. Florida may promote its compelling interest through alternative forms of release that do not discriminate on the basis of wealth. A New York Sex Crimes Lawyer said these factors lead inexorably to the conclusion that Florida’s current bail system discriminates invidiously against indigents charged with a crime like robbery, assault, kidnapping, misdemeanor, etc. Thus, the court finds that it violates the equal protection rights of such indigents. It’s not that money bail may never be imposed on an indigent defendant, it’s just that equal protection standards demand a presumption against money bail and in favor of those forms of release which do not condition pretrial freedom on an ability to pay.

In conclusion, equal protection is not satisfied unless a judge is required to consider less financially onerous forms of pretrial release before he imposes money bail. Accordingly, the judgment appealed from is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

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