Durham legislators suggested and got some revisions last week to Mayor Bill Bell’s proposal to toughen bail-bond rules for some gun-crime suspects. They also had a caution.
“When you open the door at the General Assembly it can mean unforeseen turns of events,” state Sen. Floyd McKissick said.
The changes specify that the proposal applies only to felony and Class A1 misdemeanor firearm offenses.
The discussion came during the City Council’s annual meeting with Durham’s legislative delegation on the city’s wish list for the current General Assembly session.
As City Attorney Patrick Baker described it, Bell’s proposal elevates, under certain circumstances, firearm offenses to “the same level as repeated drug trafficking offenses and repeated street gang activity.”
Bell’s proposal amends a state law on pretrial release (Section 15A-533: bit.ly/TEFrqI
) by removing magistrates’ authority to approve bail. It would require suspects to convince a judge that bail is sufficient to guarantee their appearance in court, and that releasing the suspect does not pose “an unreasonable risk of harm to the community,” if:
• The suspect was arrested for a firearm-involved offense while already on pretrial release for another gun-related offense; or
• The suspect has been convicted of a firearm offense and not more than five years has elapsed since the date of conviction or the person’s release for the offense, whichever is later.
“The burden is going to be on the individual ... to show that they will appear and answer to the charges,” Baker said.
State Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux suggested the revision to keep minor offenses such as simply firing a gun within the city limits from falling under its restrictions.
“Otherwise I think it’s a fairly decent piece of legislation,” said Michaux, who consulted with Bell and Baker in designing the bill.
State Rep. Larry Hall, though, had some other concerns.
“We’re treating (these suspects) to some extent as if they’re guilty, because we’re going to deny them the opportunity to get their release on the same conditions as someone else. ... It’s a serious matter for us to do that,” Hall said.
“I think it is a constitutional question that we get into,” he said.
Police Chief Jose L. Lopez, though, said the amendment benefits the general public.
“We really have to come into the realm of 2013 and think about our community safety and make sure that our constitution doesn’t erode that,” Lopez said. “The legislation ... more so than penalizing the offender, it’s really to keep our community safe.”
The legislation grew out of Bell’s proposal, in early 2012, to set a minimum $300,000 bond for firearm-involved offenses. That proposal met opposition from judicial authorities and legislators, and Michaux suggested an amendment to existing law could achieve much of the same purpose.
“This arose from many years of having heard so much about this ‘revolving door syndrome’ at the jail ... because we had low bonds,” Bell said. Bond guidelines were raised several years ago, but the perception of criminals being released on bond only to commit more crime has persisted.
“The issue we have in Durham is violence,” Bell said. The bill “sends a signal gun violence, any type of violence, is not tolerated.”
Hall and state Sen. Floyd McKissick wanted to know about supporting data.
“Is there any information that tells us there is a need for this?” Hall asked. “Do we have a rash of incidents. ... any numbers that say this is a problem we need this solution for, and is there any evidence this solution would effect it?”
Bell said he had requested statistics from the magistrates’ office. McKissick said he could “advocate passionately” for the bill, if it were revised to apply only to felonies, but said he would need hard data to sell the idea to other legislators.
“This type of specificity, this type of bill will be subjected to,” McKissick said.
Bell said he had no problem with modifications to help the bill through Raleigh.
“You understand the system much better than I do,” he said. “I understand Durham.”