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Court: Altering bail up to judge

Published Sep. 29, 2005

(ran PC edition)

The 5th District Court of Appeal says county judges give defendants the best bail determination, not circuit judges setting bail on warrants.

For almost two years, Hernando County's judiciary has wanted to know if county Judge Peyton Hyslop can change the bail set on warrants by local circuit judges.

The answer has remained in question as the judges, the Hernando County State Attorney's Office and the public defender have fired off letters, motions and the occasional barb.

Now they have an answer that might end the debate.

In a 2-1 decision released late last week, the 5th District Court of Appeal threw out an administrative order that barred local judges from changing bails on warrants. The court decided that binding first-appearance judges such as Hyslop by the bail amount on the warrant "deprives the defendant of a meaningful bail determination."

"I was hopeful that they would see it my way," Hyslop said Monday. "I am satisfied with the result."

Chief Judge William T. Swigert said at the time he issued the administrative order in March that his goal was to force the appellate court to decide the issue. A year earlier, the appeals court dodged the issue when it refused to rule on a bail case that had already been resolved by the state attorney's office.

On Monday, Swigert expressed relief that the issue was resolved. He had no plans to appeal the decision. Neither did Jack Springstead, one of the circuit judges who initially complained about Hyslop.

"I'm not disappointed," he said. "We should all be thankful that they made a decision. Now we can get on with our jobs."

The debate has not always been so cordial.

Hyslop, who handles most of the first appearances in Hernando, has lowered bail on warrants since he started as county judge in 1990. Circuit judges Springstead and William Law asked him privately to stop the practice, but the controversy became public in the fall of 1997 when an assistant state attorney complained in court.

Hyslop said Florida law and rules of procedure state that it was his responsibility as first-appearance judge to determine a reasonable bail. The judges who sign the warrants have never met the defendants and do not know anything about their ability to pay, he said.

"The law makes it clear that it's unfair to keep someone in jail who isn't a threat to the community or a flight risk just because they don't have enough money," Hyslop said at the time.

The circuit judges said Hyslop's practice of lowering bail on warrants undermined their authority and violated the rules of procedure. They said if defendants wanted their bails lowered, they could request a hearing and the circuit judge would hear the arguments. State Attorney Brad King charged that Hyslop jeopardized residents' safety by making it easier for defendants to get out of jail.

At one point, after one of King's staff, Don Scaglione, announced that he would run against Hyslop in the 1998 election, Hyslop said the attacks were politically motivated. The charge was denied by King and Scaglione. Hyslop won the election in September, and the debate remained relatively subdued until Swigert issued the order in March.

Hyslop obeyed the order and stopped modifying bails on warrants. Public Defender Howard Babb and Assistant Public Defender Liz Osmond challenged the order on the basis that it unfairly affected their clients. They argued that unless the first-appearance judge was allowed to modify the amounts, the inflated bails listed by the law officers who write the warrants would amount to a jail sentence for defendants who had not been convicted.

In the 5th Circuit, which includes Hernando, Citrus, Sumter, Lake and Marion counties, only Hernando has had this controversy, Swigert said.

"It was something that could be read both ways for a long time," Swigert said. "I'm glad it's finally decided."

Bill Catto, supervisor of the state attorney's office in Brooksville, said he had not thoroughly read the decision but thought it would likely end the debate. He said lowering bails is always a concern _ sometimes it's misplaced, sometimes it isn't.

"'The 5th (District Court of Appeal) has spoken," he said. "Now it's entirely up to Judge Hyslop on whether he will change the bails."

Hyslop has said all along that he thinks the rules of procedure make it clear that it is not just an option but his duty to consider all the facts and then determine a fair bail amount, regardless of the amount listed on the warrants.

"That's what the rules say," he said. "And I swore to uphold the rules."