“Nine of the 13 protesters facing multiple felony charges after a round of arrests early this week saw their bail amounts reduced Thursday, after days of controversy over whether the initial totals were excessive,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Ty Lohr reported Thursday. Protests, followed later by rioting, arson and vandalism, occurred in the city early Monday, hours after Ricardo Miguel Muñoz was fatally shot by a Lancaster city police officer Sunday afternoon outside his parents’ home. District Court Judge Bruce Roth initially set the bail at $1 million for at least nine of those who were arrested during the rioting.
The fact that these bail amounts were reduced just days later, and to such drastically lower levels, shows how wrong they were in the first place.
We aren’t the only ones who believe that.
To be clear, the charges filed against those who were arrested in connection with violence and vandalism in Lancaster are serious. Bricks were thrown; windows were smashed; and at least one fire was set. Criminal acts like these put citizens, law enforcement officers and first responders at risk.
But charges are just that — charges. Those who were arrested are innocent until proven guilty in court. And the idea that excessive bail shall not be required is one of the bedrocks of American democracy.
“On Sept. 17, we celebrate Constitution Day,” Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said in statement Thursday that followed the bail reductions. “A vast disconnect between criminal charges and bail violates the Eighth Amendment. End of story. Bail cannot be weaponized. Our Constitution literally, explicitly forbids it.”
He’s referring to the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1791 and states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Thursday, nine of those who were arrested Monday had their bails either reviewed by Judge Dennis Reinaker or revisited by Roth. That resulted, according to Lohr and Gillian McGoldrick’s reporting, in these reductions:
— Taylor Enterline, from $1 million bail to $50,000 unsecured.
— Kathryn Patterson, from $1 million bail to $50,000 unsecured.
— Alexa Wise, from $100,000 bail to $50,000 unsecured.
— Yoshua Dwayne Montague, from $1 million bail to $100,000 cash or 10%.
— Dylan Davis, from $1 million bail to $50,000 unsecured.
— Barry Jones, from $1 million bail to $100,000 unsecured.
— Jamal Shariff Newman, from $1 million bail to $100,000 straight.
— Talia Gessner, from $1 million bail to $50,000 monetary.
— T-Jay Fry, from $1 million bail to $25,000 straight.
(Matthew Modderman, a client services representative in the Client Solutions department at LNP | LancasterOnline, was also assigned $1 million bail but was released on Tuesday night, this newspaper has reported. His attorney told LNP | LancasterOnline that he wasn’t sure how much cash his client had to post to secure release.)
Each case is unique, which was precisely one of the points made by Hayden Nelson-Major, an attorney with American Civil Liberties Union Pennsylvania, who spoke here Thursday following the bail reductions.
The original bail orders were illegal, she asserted, because they were exactly the same. Identical bail “absolutely demonstrates (Judge Roth’s) failure to abide by the rules of criminal procedure,” Nelson-Major said.
Additionally, she argued that the original bail amounts showed no consideration by the judge for the defendant’s ability to pay.
“Make no mistake, these orders were in fact detention orders,” Nelson-Major said. “These detention orders were illegal because they were not accompanied by robust due process.”
When news of the $1 million bails spread earlier this week, it set off a storm of criticism here and across the state.
Reggie Shuford, executive director of ACLU Pennsylvania, called the amount “an egregious and unacceptable abuse of the bail system” and added that “cash bail should never be used to deter demonstrators and chill speech.”
That is our great concern, too. The charges in these cases are serious, but “detention orders,” as Nelson-Major put it, have no place in a fair and just America.
Additionally, a review of LNP | LancasterOnline archives finds that $1 million bails are most common here in cases that involve stabbings, large-scale drug dealing and armed robbery. None of those types of charges seemingly compare to the charges faced by the individuals arrested Monday.
There are those who disagree, of course. Emotions are high and nerves are raw following months of protests for law enforcement reform and an end to racial injustice. Sunday’s police shooting of Muñoz and the ensuing property damage in the city sent tensions even higher. And all of this is happening amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has worn us out.
Some commenters on the LNP | LancasterOnline website and Facebook page cheered the $1 million bails or said they should be even higher. Some of their comments:
— “A message needs to be sent! ZERO TOLERANCE.”
— “Let the bail stand. Make an example of them that Lancaster won’t tolerate this kind of behavior.”
— “I think the judge should change the bail. It should be 2 million. Make them do some time.”
None of that is how America’s justice system works. These individuals have been charged — not convicted. They deserve due process and their day in court. They should not be detained by unfair bail.
Xavier Garcia-Molina, a member of Lancaster City Council, believes the excessive bails further highlighted the imbalances within the justice system and the need for reforms.
He called the $1 million bails “an abuse of power.” The conversation, he said, should instead center around this question: “How do we change a broken system?”
None of this is easy. The questions we must ask are difficult. Seeking answers requires nuance and being able to talk to each other.
The protests for police reform must continue in ways that do not jeopardize public safety or property. But we also must not infringe upon the First Amendment rights of protesters. Our criminal justice system must not take actions that “chill” speech.
We are glad that Roth and Reinaker moved Thursday to reduce the $1 million bails. We wish those actions hadn’t been needed, though. Those who were charged should not have been subject to excessive bail amounts that left them sitting in jail for days.