Why is the Thurston County Sheriff criticizing judges for their bail decisions?

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Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders has been using his position to criticize certain bail decisions by Superior Court judges over the past few months.

Sanders, who came into office this year, believes some judges have failed to set “reasonable bail” for certain people accused of felony crimes.

He has voiced his disagreement on social media, at least one news release and interviews with regional television stations. His rhetoric has called attention to recent cases and sparked public discourse on how judges decide bail.

Sanders’ latest salvo came on Sept. 18 in the form of a two-page letter to the community posted on his Facebook page. In the letter, he elaborated on his views while acknowledging that judges must weigh constitutional rights and public safety concerns.

“I would like to make it entirely clear that I completely support the difficult job our Judges are doing at both Superior Court and District Court level,” Sanders said in the letter. “On a case-by-case basis however, I adamantly oppose the pre-release without a requirement of monetary bail for violent felony incidents such as those described within this letter.”

Under Washington state and federal law, people accused of a crime are legally innocent until a jury decides they are guilty or they plead guilty, said Superior Court Judge Mary Sue Wilson.

They can also expect to be released from custody without bail while they await their trial, but she said there are some exceptions that allow for bail and prolonged detention.

A judge may only impose bail if they see no less restrictive conditions that can protect against specific concerns, Wilson said.

Those concerns include whether a person is likely to commit a violent crime, interfere with witnesses or the administration of justice or fail to appear at scheduled court hearings.

When reached for comment, Sanders told The Olympian he feels judges have not been receptive to his comments, but he still feels the need to raise his concerns.

“The message has been very clear,” Sanders said. “Judges are elected officials, and they can do what they want. I don’t disagree with that. But none of us are free from scrutiny.”

What decisions does Sanders disagree with?

In his letter, Sanders referenced the case of Geoffrey Ian Gilley, a 35-year-old man who’s accused of assaulting two officers on July 4.

One of the deputies shot Gilley at his family’s home near Lacey after Gilley pointed what was later found to be a fake gun at them.

Court records indicate the man was going through a mental health crisis and threatening to kill someone. The Sheriff’s Office later released body camera footage of the incident.

On July 5, Judge Carol Murphy ordered Gilley to be released on his personal recognizance with conditions, including that he be evaluated by Washington State Designated Crisis Responders, The Olympian previously reported.

Gilley was released on July 6 after the crisis responders determined he was “not an immediate risk” to himself or others and there was no legal reason to detain him, according to the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office which took the lead on investigating the incident.

Sanders said he believes Murphy should have set a reasonable amount of bail for Gilley based on his criminal history and previous failures to appear at court.

“If you’re a judge who’s going to release that person without any monetary bail, not even a protection order for the people involved in the house, you can basically consider me an adversary,” Sanders said. “I’m going to work to get you unelected.”

In August, Sanders weighed in on Judge Allyson Zipp’s decision. Jeremyah Lewis Murphy was an 18-year-old accused of attempting to elude police in a stolen vehicle on Aug. 16.

Sanders told King 5 news that Zipp’s decision affected his deputies’ morale. He echoed that sentiment when speaking to The Olympian about Gilley’s case.

“To PR (release on personal recognizance) someone and just have them out the next day, it creates a lot of animosity and stress and anxiety on our deputies knowing that the next call can be them,” Sanders said.

Sanders also said he worries deputies, himself and the Sheriff’s Office may be held liable for what may happen if they must respond to another incident involving a released suspect.

“Law enforcement has a vested interest in this issue because unlike our judicial partners, we are subject to personal liability for the decisions we make in the course of our duties,” Sanders said in his letter.

What is the purpose of bail?

In an August news release, Washington State Representatives Dan Griffey and Travis Couture, who are both Republicans, both criticized Zipp’s decision in Murphy’s case.

“These decisions are a growing problem that sends a clear message to criminals that their actions have no consequences and Washington will not hold them accountable,” Couture said in the release.

Notably, Sanders called this perceived trend “unsustainable” in the same news release. When asked if he agreed with Couture’s statement, Sanders said, “it depends on the arrestee.”

However, Sanders clarified that he believes bail should be used as a pretrial compliance tool rather than as punishment.

He added he would like to see bail imposed on people who are likely to commit another a felony crime rather than just those who are likely to commit a violent offense.

Judge Wilson told The Olympian it would be wrong to conflate bail with a punishment because the guilt of a person is not decided in the pretrial phase.

“It’s a security to make sure they comply with the court’s orders and come back to court,” Wilson said.

Patrick O’Connor, Director of Public Defense for Thurston County, said its unconstitutional to intentionally detain someone by setting a bail amount they cannot reasonably afford.

“A $2,500 bail to a lot of our clients is a high bail because they do not have any income,” O’Connor said. “One of the challenges is what’s high for one individual may not be high for another individual. It varies.”

Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim said his office must consider the risk to public safety and any alleged victims as well as the law when recommending conditions of release to a judge. Ultimately, he said there’s a tension that exists when the matter of bail comes up.

“They’re not legally convicted of anything, but yet they’re arrested so that means there’s at least sufficient evidence to believe that they’ve committed a crime that justifies that arrest,” Tunheim said.

How does a judge decide bail?

When a person is arrested and booked into the county jail, their case must be reviewed by a judge at a preliminary hearing within 48 hours, said Superior Court Judge Mary Sue Wilson.

At that hearing, Wilson said a judge may find probable cause for the alleged crimes and set conditions of release. That’s when they may decide whether a person is likely to commit a violent crime, interfere with witnesses or the administration of justice or fail to appear at scheduled court hearings.

Wilson said there’s also exceptions to a presumption of release in cases where a defendant is accused of a capital offense, or the alleged crime could lead to a life sentence.

To continue detaining someone under those exceptions, she said a judge must determine that there’s clear and convincing evidence they have a propensity for violence.

A judge also reviews a summary of the allegations from law enforcement and a report from Pretrial Services that details the defendant’s criminal history and any failures to appear at previous court hearings, she said.

Additionally, Wilson said a judge considers input from the prosecutor, the defense counsel and any alleged victims who may decide to provide a statement.

Other factors that may affect a judge’s decision include the defendant’s employment, community ties, length of residency, mental condition and whether they have supportive people in their life, she said.

Wilson said court rules and judicial ethics prohibit judges from speaking about pending cases. However, she encouraged the public to view court hearings and review court records to see how this process unfolds.

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