Many times when news of an alleged crime is reported, readers get upset that the defendant was let off with a “slap on the wrist.” I think part of the confusion stems from people thinking the case has been settled, when all that's happened is a defendant was arraigned and they were released from the court while the case is pending. It's fine to be upset over a defendant's release conditions, but this post is to shed a little more light on the process.
When a person is charged with a crime, even if they confessed it to police, they are presumed innocent until they're convicted. That said, the court can and does place restrictions on people's freedom pending the outcome of their case. These restrictions are called “conditions of release.”
Typically, when I hear about them it's when they are being argued by attorneys before a judge at the defendant's arraignment hearing. The rules about what conditions can be set are fairly nuanced and I'm not going try and get into every little detail, but generally speaking the judge has to use the least restrictive conditions possible to ensure the public's safety and that the defendant does not flee the court's jurisdiction and comes to court on time.
A defendant who violated their conditions can be charged with a misdemeanor crime called “violating conditions of release,” which brings them back into court where the judge can impose stricter conditions.
Conditions of release can be anything from having to check in at a police station a few times a week, or everyday, not driving, drinking alcohol, leaving the county, or having contact with certain people, usually witnesses or alleged victims. Curfews are pretty common, and judges can also bar a person from using the Internet or a cell phone.
In some cases, a judge can order a person held without bail. This usually happens when a crime of violence has been alleged, or the potential maximum sentence is life in prison. Often a person facing such charges will be held until a “weight of the evidence” hearing can be conducted, where attorneys make more involved arguments.
In Vermont, bail can only be set to guard against a person fleeing the court jurisdiction. Judges look at everything from a defendant's appearance record, their ties to other states or countries, and the possible penalties they might face if convicted when setting bail amounts.
Conditions and bail can be modified as the case is pending. Sometimes they get stricter, sometimes they get relaxed.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr