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Bob Wilson: Keep Durham bonds where they are, Mr. Mayor

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Here is an early look at Bob Wilson's column in this Sunday's Durham News. Agree or disagree? Tell us here (with your name for publication) or at editor@newsobserver.com.

By Bob Wilson

Mayor Bill Bell is on another hayride for sharply higher bail bonds that would, so he claims, discourage firing a gun in the city. That’s a noble aim (no pun intended), but raising the current bail from $75,000 to $300,000 would be toxic for the constitutional notion of excessive bail.

Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson isn’t buying Bell’s snake oil, and neither are the city’s trial lawyers. They say the city’s maximum bail for illegally discharging firearms is already higher than most other North Carolina jurisdictions.

Bell’s latest call for $300,000 bail came during his 2012 State of the City address. This is nothing new. It goes back to 2008, when Bell first raised the issue. It lay fallow until August 2011, when Bell blew smoke again upon learning that a homicide suspect free on bail was accused of bank robbery.

Admittedly, that sort of thing concentrates the mind into believing that Durham really does have a revolving-door criminal justice system (Hudson dismisses the perception as a media construct). Yet, as Hudson, the defense lawyers and the U.S. and state constitutions rightly point out, bail can’t be used to trump presumption of innocence.

The constitutions’ language is clear: “Excessive bail shall not be required” for suspects arrested in connection with criminal acts.

We can argue over the definition of “excessive,” just as opponents of Brown v. Board of Education did with the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that desegregation must proceed “with all deliberate speed.”

But I suspect that most people know excessive bail when they see it, and $300,000 surely hits the constitutional wall.

This is not an argument for going soft on suspects accused of firing a gun in the commission of criminal acts, but rather for preserving the fine balance between the police power of a jurisdiction and an individual’s right to presumption of innocence.

As defense attorneys Bill Thomas and John Fitzpatrick told a local newspaper, Durham’s criminal justice system with some frequency levies high bail on suspects who are later found innocent of wrongdoing.

A telling example came out of the 2010 incident that had gangstas in two cars exchanging shots on South Roxboro Street. Police Chief Jose Lopez happened to be in the right place at the wrong time, and there was no doubt among local authorities that Lopez was the target of the gunmen.

Perhaps, but two suspects arrested in the case could not raise bail. They languished in jail for almost a year and a half, living on the taxpayers’ tab. For lack of evidence, they were never prosecuted.

Bail became an essential part of American jurisprudence through English common law dating to the 13th century, when the then-radical concept of a yeoman’s right to protection against abuses by the crown took root. Our constitutional ban on excessive bail comes straight from those victories for individual freedom. Think Magna Carta.

Not to be deterred, Mayor Bell wants City Attorney Patrick Baker to draft a local bill authorizing $300,000 bail for illegal discharge of a firearm.

The City Council should deep-six it. Such a bill strikes like a viper at the proscription against excessive bail. How ironic that the chief magistrate of Durham, which prides itself on a liberal interpretation of our national and state charters, now seeks to upend them.

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About the blogger

Mark Schultz is the editor of The Chapel Hill News and The Durham News.