A recent Supreme Court decision gives people accused of crimes the power to contest, with evidence, prosecutors’ claims about how much bail is reasonable — a change that will likely provide more protection to people fighting bail bonds they can’t afford.
The decision in Connecticut v. Qinxuan Pan emerges after Pan, a defendant accused of murder who later skipped town, unsuccessfully requested that a trial court modify his $20 million bond and instead offer a 10% cash bail option — which allows for people to pay 10% of their bail amount in cash and avoid pre-trial incarceration.
Connecticut’s Judicial Branch defines bail as money or property given to the court for the temporary release of a defendant, to ensure that the person will return to court.
The judge, Gerald Harmon, said he lacked authority to provide the cash bail alternative, a conclusion the state Supreme Court said Tuesday was incorrect. Connecticut law holds that the 10% cash bail option is automatically available for any bond set for $20,000 or less — not capped at $20,000, as Harmon falsely indicated.
The state’s high court ruled that if defendants can present evidence about their financial circumstances at a court hearing, prosecutors bear the responsibility of showing why the bond amount should stand. Upon a trial court’s final decision to either modify a bond amount or uphold it, the Supreme Court also said, the judge has to convey why the decision was made.
“Pretrial detention may carry very serious consequences in addition to, and as a result of, the defendant’s loss of liberty,” the Supreme Court wrote in its opinion. “We believe that it is critical that a defendant have a meaningful opportunity to seek review of his initial bond through a more extensive hearing process than was initially held at arraignment.”
In an emailed response Wednesday to The Connecticut Mirror, chief state’s attorney Patrick Griffin said his office is “currently reviewing the decision.”
Josh Perldeiner, a New Britain public defender who has represented people with low income and high bond amounts, told the CT Mirror that the decision will likely help people struggling financially.
“It’s definitely a change for the better, because it’s going to allow us to make more arguments about indigent people — people who don’t have the kind of income to post the kind of bonds that the courts are setting,” Perldeiner said. “Now we have the right to bring evidence to court and make a showing, and the judge has to say on the record why they’re not changing the bond amount.”
The state Supreme Court’s ruling marks a significant development for people of color and people with low income, who make up the bulk of people navigating Connecticut’s criminal legal system. Black and Latino people constitute 70% of those incarcerated in the state, despite making up only 30% of the population.
There are nearly 3,700 people behind bars who haven’t had a trial, according to an October report from the Criminal Justice Policy & Planning Division. Of all people held on bail, about 63% of them have bonds of $100,000 or more.
Connecticut’s constitution holds that people accused of crimes have the right to be released on bail. It also prohibits excessive bails and fines.
Prior to the Tuesday ruling, attorneys could make statements about whether a certain bond amount was warranted without presenting the actual evidence in court. In Connecticut v. Qinxuan Pan, for instance, prosecutors argued for a $50 million bond, claiming that Pan was well-off financially with assets “going well into the millions of dollars.” Pan’s attorneys, however, said that his wealth was overstated and that his personal income before his arrest was a “graduate student stipend of approximately $30,000 annually, with no assets.”
But since the Tuesday decision, when a person requests bond modification, prosecutors and defendants can’t rely “solely on simple representations of counsel to meet their respective burdens,” the court ruled. And when a person charged with a crime brings forth “reliable hearsay evidence, relevant documents, and other documentary or testimonial evidence,” prosecutors are on the hook for doing the same to show why a high bond amount is warranted.
Criminal justice advocates have long denounced high bond amounts as unconstitutional, as it allows for people with financial privileges to avoid time behind bars, while people struggling financially don’t have any other choice.
One of those people was Jean Conquistador, a Hispanic man who earlier this year was unable to post $45,000 bail. After spending about two months incarcerated, his mother and two aunts put forth their social security and disability checks to help secure his release.
“I’m not going to bond out, so I’ll be incarcerated,” Conquistador told a judge before receiving help from his family. “I do not have the money to bond out.”
Perldeiner, who represented Conquistador, believes the state Supreme Court’s ruling would have kept his client from spending excessive time confined to a cell and giving up valuable property to get out.
“If we had been able to have a full, real evidentiary hearing at the time … he would not have had to spend his mother’s disability checks to post bond. He would have been out much sooner,” Perldeiner said. “If we had had the hearing and been able to say, ‘Look, he really can’t post it. This is what he’s got. His bond needs to be reduced,’ he would have been in a materially different situation.”