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Who gets bail? It's all a little complicated

TAMPA — Five days a week, Hillsborough Judge Walter "Buzzy" Heinrich presides as air traffic controller over a fleet of inmates in orange.

The men and women before him stand accused of crimes, and it's up to the judge to decide if they should be let out of jail or locked up until trial.

Heinrich doles out decisions with clipped speech and a rapid pace: $50,000 bail for a felon facing an aggravated battery charge and $250 bail for a woman who skipped a petty theft hearing. No release for a man accused of violating his probation for burglary.

"No bond. Adios," Heinrich says.

After more than 20 years on the job, the judge seems almost robotic. But the process of setting bail is far from routine, he says, and the stakes are high.

Last month, a Pinellas County judge set bail at $1,000 for a man accused of violating a domestic violence injunction. Thirty-three hours after Craig Wall's release, he fatally stabbed his girlfriend, authorities say.

The threat of that worst-case scenario weighs heavily on Heinrich.

"My everyday nightmare," he said.

• • •

Given the volume of cases in the Tampa Bay area, some court officials say they are surprised that the nightmare doesn't happen more often.

Last year, Hillsborough County booked 60,208 inmates. Pinellas booked 50,980 and Pasco, 18,009. One-fourth to one-half of those inmates posted bail, allowing them to remain free until their cases got resolved. Others were released on their own recognizance.

Not everyone faced a judge before getting out.

Each judicial circuit has its own uniform bail schedule that dictates which defendants are required to have first appearance hearings and which ones can have their bail set automatically by jail officials.

Certain offenses — including murder, rape and domestic violence — guarantee face time with a judge.

But hit a police officer, or run from one, and you could post bail and walk out of jail without first going to court.

That's what Frankie Leonard did. Last month, the felon with an extensive rap sheet was accused of ramming a police car, speeding away and eventually crashing into a Tampa sandwich shop. Booked on charges of aggravated battery, aggravated fleeing to elude and resisting arrest without violence, he received the standard $15,500 bail for that combination of charges.

Heinrich handles about 100 to 150 cases each morning in first appearance court. To get through his dockets, he chugs lemon-lime Gatorade, pops vitamins and takes a 20-minute nap at lunch.

As busy as he is, he estimates that he sees only about half of the people who get arrested.

Nearly all of them are constitutionally entitled to reasonable bail. It's part of innocent unless proved guilty.

"You can't just say that we can keep everyone in jail on every case," Heinrich said. "That's not what the law is."

Judges do have significant discretion in arriving at the amount of bail. Using the standard bail schedule as a baseline, they consider the severity of the charge, the weight of the evidence against the defendant and the person's community ties and prior record.

Bail for most third-degree felony arrests in Pinellas and Pasco ranges from $2,000 to $5,000. It's a flat $2,000 in Hillsborough.

Defendants can either post cash or pay a bondsman 10 percent.

Heinrich said he would seriously consider releasing someone charged with a third-degree felony on his or her own recognizance if the person cooperated with law enforcement and had no record.

If a person with the same charge has a long record and other recent arrests, "I have no hesitation jacking their bond up $10,000 to $15,000," Heinrich said. "But that still doesn't mean that I can keep them in jail."

• • •

With no crystal ball to show them who will reoffend, judges look for telling clues and little nuances that might suggest whether a defendant poses a threat.

They aim to protect both the defendants' rights and society.

"The more dangerous the crime, the more careful I'm going to be in setting bond," said Judge Donald Horrox, who hears roughly 80 first-appearance cases each weekday in Pinellas County. "You develop a knack over time, I think, to be able to focus on the type of inquiry you need to make."

But not every danger is readily apparent. And if a husband arrested on a domestic violence charge says he is going to kill his wife, does he actually intend to carry out the threat or is he just spouting off in an angry moment?

"We try to get it right, but it's hard to predict," Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Thomas McGrady said. "It's an art, not a science."

First appearance judges rely on prosecutors to flesh out the facts of each case as much as possible.

Weekdays in Hillsborough, four members of the State Attorney's Office arrive at work before sunrise to gather the necessary information.

"It's a critical stage in the proceedings," said Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober. "Our obligation is to make certain that a judge has all of the information available to make an informed decision."

That doesn't always happen. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe reassigned the assistant state attorney who failed to mention at Wall's first appearance last month that he had spent 14 years in prison and was a suspect in the death of his own child.

But even those key facts probably would not have been enough for the presiding judge to hold Wall without bail on a misdemeanor charge, Heinrich said.

"I don't think he could have made a different decision even if he knew that information," said Heinrich, who was not involved in the case. "I feel really bad for any judge that gets into that situation. It's going to happen, but you feel terrible about it."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at or (813) 226-3337.

Who gets bail? It's all a little complicated 03/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 6, 2010 11:17pm]
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