After a year marked by high-profile crimes involving defendants out on bond, a local state representative is planning to reintroduce a constitutional amendment that, if approved, would give judges in Alabama more leeway to keep certain accused criminals behind bars until their cases have gone to trial.
Rep. Chip Brown, R-Mobile, said he plans to pre-file a bill ahead of the 2020 legislation session that would mirror legislation he drafted last year with input from local law enforcement officials and Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich.
Rich and other officials, like Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste, have been candid about the concerns they’ve had with some violent and repeat offenders being released on bond ahead of their criminal trials — especially in cases where those same defendants have gone on to commit additional crimes.
Section 16 of the Alabama Constitution states “all persons” shall be eligible for a pretrial bond, “except for capital offenses when the proof is evident or the presumption great.” When questioned about a bond they granted, some judges have cited Section 16, though the law currently allows a suspect’s request for bond to be denied if the court believes they’re a “real and present danger to the public or a flight risk.”
After taking office in 2018, Brown said he realized this was a problem for law enforcement statewide. His proposed bill would add certain Class A felonies to that exception for pretrial bond, including offenses like first-degree rape, first-degree kidnapping, first-degree robbery and murder non-capital charges.
It wouldn’t automatically prohibit a suspect from receiving a bond, but would instead allow prosecutors to request a hearing and present evidence as to why they believe bond should be withheld. Judges could still deny the request and would still be able to grant bond if they found the evidence presented insufficient.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Brown said he felt it walks a line between law enforcement and the judiciary that could keep certain violent offenders off the street while still protecting defendants’ constitutional rights.
“I think this would simply give judges another tool in their tool box. Currently, I think they feel hamstrung by the way the law is written. Since it just covers capital crimes, many feel obligated under the Eighth Amendment to grant bond no matter what the person is charged with,” he said. “Another important thing is it’s not a requirement — it doesn’t come down heavy on the judges and doesn’t tie their hands.”
The flexibility the bill includes, Brown argued, would also prevent it from exacerbating the problems state prisons and county jails are already having with overcrowding.
Because changing Section 16 requires a constitutional amendment, the bill, if approved, would be put before the people in a statewide referendum. If it passes in the upcoming session, Brown said it could be placed on the ballot as early as the November general election and would go into effect immediately.
Last year, a similar bill was supported by professional associations representing Alabama’s sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys, but despite strong bipartisan support in the House, where the bill passed 92-3, Brown’s 2019 legislation ultimately stalled in the Senate.
However, he told Lagniappe that was mostly an issue with timing and not an indication of any strong opposition to the bill in the upper chamber. With more time, he’s confident it will be able to pass in 2020.
“It was just so late in the session that we ran out of meeting days, but I like our chances this year because we’re getting it in early during the session,” he said. “I think it’s such an important piece of legislation, and unfortunately, we’ve had so many high-profile cases affected by this that have come up this year.”
Specifically, Brown cited the murder of Aniah Blanchard — the 19-year-old Southern Union State Community College student who was missing for several weeks before her body was discovered in rural Macon County. The prime suspect in her murder, 29-year-old Ibraheem Yazeed, was out on bond at the time she disappeared.
When he was arrested as a suspect in Blanchard’s disappearance and death, Yazeed was out of jail on a $280,000 bond awaiting a trial on charges of attempted murder, robbery and two counts of first-degree kidnapping in connection to an incident that occured in Montgomery almost a year ago.
Court records indicate Yazeed is accused of holding two male victims against their will before beating and robbing them. The oldest, a 77-year-old man, was said to be “severely injured and near death” when police found him in a car Yazeed and another alleged accomplice were seen driving in Macon County.
While there’s no way to know what a judge might have done with regard to granting Yazeed’s bond in that case, if Brown’s proposed bill was in place, prosecutors would have had grounds to request an evidentiary hearing and ask he be kept off the street as his case was processed in Montgomery.
If he was behind bars, Yazeed would not have encountered Blanchard at the Chevron gas station in Auburn where police say he allegedly forced the 19-year-old into her own vehicle and drove away.
“I believe my bill would go a long way in some of these cases like this where law enforcement and the district attorney believe they have a good sense that someone could commit another crime while they’re out on bond,” Brown said. “I think it’s something that could potentially save lives and prevent people from becoming victims of violent crimes in the future.”
Though his bill has yet to officially pre-filed, Brown said he anticipates it will be by the end of January.
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