Lawmakers advance bill that would make bail harder for some criminal defendants to obtain

People rearrested while on pretrial release could be jailed for up to 48 hours — regardless of the severity of their charge.

By: - June 15, 2023 5:10 am

Rep. John Bradford (R-Mecklenburg) and Rep. Abe Jones (D-Wake) present their bill, “The Pretrial Integrity Act” to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday afternoon.

Members of the North Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill Wednesday that would allow people to sit in jail for up to 48 hours if they are re-arrested after getting released from jail for another crime — regardless of the severity of the charges.

Republicans framed the measure as a “victims’ rights bill” that law enforcement and the district attorney in Mecklenburg County had asked for. Sen. Danny Britt (R-Hoke) said that under the proposal judges, not magistrates, would first set bond for certain crimes, but that two-day waiting period is a “worst-case scenario.”

“If someone is out committing crimes on Friday night, they may have to stay over the weekend,” Britt said. “Maybe anyone listening, hopefully, don’t commit your crimes on Friday evening, and you won’t have to stay as long in jail, right? It’s ‘up to’ 48 hours; it’s not a mandatory hold of 48 hours.”

Under current law, police take people they’ve arrested to a magistrate, who determines bail or other conditions of confinement before a judge weighs in. House Bill 813 — dubbed “The Pretrial Integrity Act” — would let judges, rather than magistrates, determine whether people charged with certain crimes — serious felonies like human trafficking, first-degree arson or statutory sexual offense with a child by an adult — should be granted pretrial release, and if so, what the conditions of that release should be.

Notably, it also requires judges to set conditions on a person’s release from jail if they are re-arrested while on pretrial release for another crime. If a judge hasn’t acted within 48 hours, magistrates can set conditions.

The proposal passed out of the House shortly before the legislature’s crossover deadline. Republicans unanimously supported it, but Democrats split over protecting people’s constitutional right to bail and keeping people jailed pretrial out of fear that they’ll commit more crimes when they are released. The bill passed the House by a vote of 92-25.

There was a similar debate in Wednesday’s committee hearing. Unlike in the House, one of Mecklenburg’s elected officials expressed concerns over the bill. Sen. Mujtaba A. Mohammed (D-Mecklenburg) worried aloud that the bill sets the state up for litigation over violating people’s constitutional right to bail.

“There’s been Supreme Court cases on the issue but nothing binding on the General Assembly,” said Robert Ryan, a legislative analyst.

Mohammed pointed out that lawmakers passed a bill in 2015 that gave judicial officials the ability to double a person’s bond when they are charged with another crime while they are on pretrial release. He asked Rep. John R. Bradford III (R-Mecklenburg), one of this year’s bill’s sponsors, why that was insufficient.

Bradford said many people in these situations have their cases heard “within hours,” so they could be in court and out of jail well before that 48-hour deadline.

“This bill is that, for someone who is a repeat offender — they’re already out on pretrial release — if they are back, then instead of it going to a magistrate, it would have to go to a judge within 48 hours,” said Bradford.

But, Mohammed said, under the bill, if someone is re-arrested for a new offense while on pretrial release for any charge, no matter how minor, they could be jailed for up to 48 hours.

“If it’s for violent offenses, I completely understand,” Mohammed said. “My bigger concern is the low-level offenses. We don’t want to contribute to people’s problems.”

Mohammed said he reached out to researchers in the UNC School of Government before the committee hearing. According to their figures, more than 80% of criminal charges in North Carolina are for nonviolent misdemeanors. Seven of the top 10 most commonly charged crimes are for motor vehicle offenses, like driving with a revoked license because of a failure to pay fines or fees, speeding and misdemeanor larceny.

Mohammed said he feared exacerbating existing strains in the criminal justice system like overworked prosecutors, slow court proceedings, over-populated jails.

“We’re lucky in Mecklenburg County… we’re thankful to have a little bit more resources,” Mohammed said. “But I’m honestly looking out for your constituents in the rural parts of the state who don’t have those resources, who might potentially be sitting there [in jail] for the most petty offenses with this piece of legislation.”

Mohammed presented an anecdote: Imagine a mother who gets charged for stealing diapers from Walmart. She gets booked and then released pretrial. Then she gets arrested for not paying train fare.

“She’s going to be potentially detained up to 48 hours for the most minor offenses,” he said. “I would ask you to really, really consider eliminating the low-level offenses from being included in this bill, so our prosecutors and law enforcement community can focus on the more serious and violent offenses and not divert those resources.”

During the public comment portion of the discussion, Spencer B. Merriweather III, the Mecklenburg County district attorney, presented his own anecdote. Merriweather said there was a person in  Uptown Charlotte who keeps pushing people into traffic. Every time that happens, that person is charged with a Class II misdemeanor, Merriweather said. They are brought before a magistrate, who thinks the case is low-level because of the severity of the charge, and releases the person on a promise to appear.

“At no point is that person able to hear the circumstances which are scaring people as they’re walking in Uptown Charlotte. At no point is that person able to hear the circumstances, that are frustrating businesses that are lined up and down Uptown Charlotte,” Merriweather said. “They knock on the doors of their police chief and their D.A.”

The bill is now pending in the Committee on the Rules and Operations of the Senate.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.