LARGO — Officers had just rolled out the flash bang grenades when Paula Melgarejo started to run.
She was first or second against the railing outside St. Petersburg police headquarters on Tuesday night, protesting racism and police brutality in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Melgarejo, 26, escaped the explosions by heading south, her memory going blank in the rush, until she made it to Hawkers Asian Street Fare a block away. She spotted her neighbor, with whom she had come to the protest, and they took a beat to collect themselves.
Suddenly, both women were ordered to the ground, handcuffed and taken into custody. Melgarejo, 26, became one of 37 people last week to be arrested on a charge of unlawful assembly in connection to the protests outside the police department.
As a second-degree misdemeanor, court guidelines recommend people who face unlawful assembly charges should be released, rather than get booked into the jail. Yet, Melgarejo and other protesters were held overnight at the Pinellas County Jail without the option to post bail until they appeared before a judge the next day. At protesters’ first court appearances, judges imposed $1,000 bail, four times the recommended high bail amount for a charge of that level.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who sought permission to hold protesters overnight without bail, said the “unique nature” of the charges warranted a judge to make the bail determination.
“Because of the attack on law enforcement, the aggressive nature of it, the civil unrest..." Gualtieri said. “I just believe that under these circumstances, they should go before the court and let the judge decide. That’s the core of our system.”
Public Defender Bob Dillinger called the bail issue “unusual."
“It’s a high bond," said Public Defender Bob Dillinger, whose office is representing many of those who face unlawful assembly charges from the protests, of the $1,000 bail. "And with no bond or (release on their own recognizance) at booking, I’ve never seen it in 45 years of doing this.”
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Unlawful assembly occurs if “three or more persons meet together to commit a breach of the peace, or to do any other unlawful act,” according to Florida law. It’s a second-degree misdemeanor.
According to the Pinellas County bail schedule, those arrested on second-degree misdemeanors should be released on their own recognizance, meaning without securing any bail. In the event bail is charged, it shouldn’t exceed $250.
But, instead of being granted the opportunity to bail themselves out of jail, Melgarejo and other protesters had stamped on their arrest reports “No bond by order of Judge Rondolino.”
Anthony Rondolino is the Chief Judge of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, which encompasses Pinellas and Pasco counties. Gualtieri last week asked Rondolino if the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, could withhold from unlawful assembly defendants the opportunity to post bail until they saw a judge the next day. Rondolino agreed.
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“The chief judge determined there was no statutory requirement that a bond be set in such matters before the first appearance hearing and that the decisions regarding conditions of release would be addressed upon facts presented at that hearing,” wrote courthouse spokesman Steve Thompson in a statement. “As noted on the complaint, in conformity with that determination, no bond was set by the arresting officer. All of the individuals arrested received a timely hearing in court at which point the advisory judge addressed the specific facts presented.”
Gualtieri said he made the request because of a “public safety nexus.” He said some people who were charged with unlawful assembly probably could have been charged with more, as some threw rocks and glass bottles at officers.
“I thought it was appropriate that a judge weigh in on this," Gualtieri said. "That’s what it’s for, so they can hear argument, hear evidence, and decide what is the appropriate amount.”
Rondolino had the same perspective: “Chief Judge Rondolino wanted the judge at advisories to hear the circumstances of each defendant’s arrest, as well as the defendant’s criminal background,” wrote Thompson. "There was a concern some people might have been using what were largely peaceful protests as a cover for criminal activity.”
A Hillsborough County court spokesman confirmed the chief judge there had not made a similar ruling.
What it meant for Melgarejo, a server at the Cheesecake Factory, was that she was forced to wait to appear in court the next day, where Pinellas County Judge Paul Levine set her bail at $1,000.
Thompson, the court spokesman, said judges don’t comment on their decisions. He said the bail schedule is a “recommended starting point" and that a “judge is not obligated to follow it to a T.”
Benjamin Stevenson, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said bail amounts must take into consideration the danger to public safety of having those accused of crimes out on the street.
“I think the police would have an enormously high burden to suggest that there is a public danger to releasing people promptly,” he said of the protesters.
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Dillinger wondered if emotions were at play. Gualtieri was at the protests, he said, where vitriol and objects were hurled at officers.
Dillinger said prosecutors should take into consideration the political nature of the protests when deciding whether to pursue charges against protesters in court, especially since most of the arrest reports did not indicate any violence.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said his office had not yet decided whether to file formal charges against protesters. He said he wasn’t bothered by the bail amounts.
“I think if you arrest someone for unlawful assembly, there’s a chance the unlawful assembly is still going on,” he said. "You don’t want to send them right back to the unlawful assembly. So the bail decisions don’t give me any heartburn.”
Melgarejo said she thought her treatment was unfair.
"I wasn’t expecting to be arrested, much less held overnight,” she said. “I do think $1,000 was a high bail, we were exercising our First Amendment right so I didn’t think we even did anything worth needing bail money. We’re in the middle of a pandemic where people have been unemployed for months, $1,000 bail is a high amount.”