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Missouri lawmakers say Supreme Court got it wrong on bail changes

(Missourinet) Eighty-two state lawmakers have signed a letter denouncing the Missouri Supreme Court’s rule changes limiting judges from requiring bail. A task force – including prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement and judges – recommended the changes to the court. The high court launched the rules last July.

The rules say judges must first consider non-monetary conditions for pretrial release. The judges can only charge bail fees to help ensure the safety of the defendant’s appearance in court. They are also required to speed up when court hearings are held to set or review bail.

State Rep. Justin Hill speaks on the Missouri House floor in February 2017 (photo courtesy of Tim Bommel at House Communications)

GOP State Representative Justin Hill, a former police officer from Lake St. Louis, issued the letter saying the court should pitch the “flawed rules” that make it too difficult for judges to impose bail. He tells Missourinet the high court circumvented the lawmaking process by adopting House Bill 666 as a rule.

“I’ve never seen a more gross violation of separation of powers,” he says. “They need to leave the lawmaking up to lawmakers – the direct representatives of the people. For the Supreme Court to do this, particularly one Supreme Court justice, it’s almost like ruling as an emperor. They can’t select the bills they like and then make it law through rule making. How do we stop this? What’s my recourse? I’m asking lawyers – can I sue the Supreme Court for overstepping their bounds or do I have to sue them in federal court? I don’t know but that can’t happen again.”

Hill says Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice George Draper III lead the charge to implement the rule changes he calls “disastrous”. During last week’s State of the Judiciary address, Draper said the changes ease inconsistencies with Missouri’s constitutional mandates to promise bail with sufficient guarantees in all but capital offenses, like murder.

After the rules were released, J.R. Hobbs, a Kansas City defense attorney and task force member, told Missourinet the court is simply restating federal law. He says increased court cases nationwide show cash bond does not respect one’s rights of due process, fair trial and equal protection.

Hill, a member of the Missouri House Judiciary Committee, says the rules essentially allow many felons back out on the streets without using bail to encourage them to show up to court. He says rural Missouri is really feeling the pain.

“Now we have rapists being released. It is akin to literally a policeman making a traffic stop for rape, writes them a ticket saying please come to court. And that’s just not going to cut it,” he tells Missourinet. “Monetary bail does something very unique in that it allows the risk of that person to return to court to be underwritten. When I say underwritten, that’s a risk assessment of whether or not they’re going to flee the country.”

Hill gives another example involving a convicted felon suspected in last October’s deadly Tequila KC mass shooting. Hill calls the case of Javier Alatorre, 23, “a breakdown in justice”.

“The Jackson County Courts – the prosecutor tried to get bond on the criminal, on a felon, and the judge refused it using these new rules. The defendant was released, and a month later killed four people and went to Mexico. We are not looking after who we are all charged at looking after first and that’s the public’s safety,” he says.

Audrain County Sheriff Matt Oller posted information on Facebook about a convicted felon on the run from law enforcement. He indicates his displeasure with the bail rules and the Missouri Department of Corrections.

According to Hill, the restrictions also add the amount of work for the court system and law enforcement if a defendant does not show up for court. The failure to appear creates a new docket entry or charge against the defendant. Law enforcement officers, with many working for understaffed departments, then must search for the missing individual.

He says court problems in St. Louis County have brought us to where we are today with bail changes.

“I venture to guess there’s probably over 30 or 40 of these municipal courts compounding fines on top of people – people that don’t have money. They’re being held too long for misdemeanor offenses,” he says. “Then they’re put on probation and they’re being held in probation for too long for misdemeanor offenses.”

So now what? Hill hopes the court will come to the table and work with the Missouri Legislature to craft “a responsible, narrowly-tailored set of changes meant to improve the judiciary.”

“We all want swift justice,” says Hill. “We want to make sure that the right person is arrested and convicted. We want to make sure that they’re brought to justice quickly. We want to make sure that someone is not sitting in jail because they can’t afford bond, but we also want to make sure that the public’s safety as our priority.

If they don’t come to the table, then we have to go to more extreme measures. That might be calling for the public to remove these justices on the ballot.”

Hill has also filed House Bill 1937 in response to the rules. He says the measure would change the order of what pretrial conditions judges can impose on the defendants. The measure is awaiting committee assignment.

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