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Billionaires For Bail Reform, Putting Their Money Where it Matters

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TULSA, OK — Last Labor Day weekend, Tommi Ziegler watched in horror as her pregnant daughter stood sobbing against a car, swollen belly straining against her white tank top, hands bound behind her back with handcuffs.

A routine traffic stop had devolved into a crisis.

“I was shaking,” Ziegler said.

Police had pulled their car over for running a stoplight, shortly after leaving the parking lot of a shopping center, where the family had spent the day. After checking her identification, officers told Ziegler’s 22-year-old daughter, Chelsey Marshall, that she was under arrest for an outstanding warrant tied to unpaid traffic tickets.

Ziegler held a cell phone up to Marshall’s face. Her attorney was on the line.

“Please help,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”

The arrest shouldn’t have happened. Days before, Marshall had received community service after settling the tickets — one for driving without a license, the other for not having insurance.

But Marshall, then late in a high-risk pregnancy, was taken to jail anyway. Her bail was set at $661.

Pending a miracle, Marshall would have to spend the long holiday weekend behind bars.

“My heart just sank,” Ziegler said. “I was like, ‘Oh, there’s no way I can come up with this right now.'”

On any given night, more than 450,000 Americans are locked up in jails, charged but not convicted of crimes. Though the nation’s cash bail system is intended to guarantee that defendants will show up for their court dates, critics say it works less as an incentive and more as a punishment inflicted disproportionately on communities of color and low-income defendants.

Last week, criminal justice reformers backed by $30 million in donations from the wealthy and influential announced the launch of The Bail Project — a bold effort to disrupt the bail system by using charitable dollars to bail people like Marshall out of jail. Over the next five years the nonprofit’s bail ‘disrupters’ plan to use a revolving fund to post bail for over 160,000 low-income, pretrial defendants.

Robin Steinberg, The Bail Project’s founder, and a veteran public defender, said that the way bail is commonly applied in courts both large and small has created a two-tiered, cash-register system of justice. Those who can afford to pay get out of jail, while the poor languish behind bars.

“You haven’t been convicted of a crime, you are supposed to be presumed innocent,” Steinberg said. “And the only way to get out of a jail cell when bail is set is to buy your way out. That disadvantages poor people and it disadvantages people of color.”

“If you’re rich, you buy your freedom and you buy the presumption of innocence,” she added. “If you are not rich you can’t buy your freedom and you don’t get the presumption of innocence.”

Starting in January, The Bail Project will open offices in Tulsa and St. Louis, Missouri, and eventually expand to 40 other sites. In addition to paying bail, Project employees will work with clients over time to support them through their cases, increasing the likelihood they will return for their court dates by reminding them of their court schedule or connecting them to needed services, such as transportation or childcare. When the case is over, the bail money is returned to the fund.

“That means we can use that same dollar to bail out somebody else’s son and somebody else’s mother and somebody else’s child, over and over and over again,” Steinberg said.

Like a snowball rolling downhill, the consequences of remaining incarcerated, even for a day, can quickly compound. Pretrial defendants who can’t afford bail risk losing jobs, housing, relationships, even custody of children. In the most tragic cases, being stuck in jail can destroy a life.

Image: Ezra Ritchin

Ezra Ritchin, project director for the Bronx Freedom Fund, on the bus to bail out clients. Hannah Rappleye

Last year, 26-year-old Jeffrey Pendleton died in a New Hampshire jail after being charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession. He could not afford to post $100 bail. In 2015, Kalief Browder, 22, committed suicide after spending three years at New York City’s Rikers Island, including long stints in solitary confinement, while awaiting trial for stealing a backpack when he was 16. He could not initially afford his bail, set at $3,000.

Those consequences fall disproportionately on communities of color, said Vincent Southerland, executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality and the Law at NYU Law, and a member of The Bail Project’s board.

“The domino effect on those lives is that you’re cut off from employment, cut off from opportunities to reunite with your family, cut off from the community at large,” Southerland said. “And it really puts a pause on your life if you’re sitting in jail waiting for your criminal case to be resolved.”

According to a report by the Pretrial Justice Institute, taxpayers spend about $14 billion a year on costs stemming from pre-trial detention. The Bail Project expects to save taxpayers and municipalities more than half a billion dollars a year.

That return on investment, Steinberg said, helped convince prominent foundations, including Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson’s charity, and billionaires like Mike Novogratz to back the fund.

Image: Mike Novogratz

Investor and hedge fund manager Mike Novogratz. NBC News

But Novogratz, a prominent hedge fund manager, said it wasn’t dollars and cents that drove him. It was the outrage he felt after observing firsthand the sometimes Kafka-esque machinations of the criminal justice system.

“I think it’s a revolutionary-in-spirit idea,” Novogratz said. “In some ways, it’s a middle finger to the system, saying, ‘Hey, you know what? The system is so broke we’re just going to show up and pay the damn bail.'”

The ‘disrupters’

While the initiative is national in scope, it was born in the South Bronx.

Ten years ago Steinberg, then a public defender working in the Bronx Criminal Court, grew so frustrated by the thousands of people languishing behind bars because they couldn’t afford bail that she and colleague David Feige launched The Bronx Freedom Fund. The fund provided the blueprint Steinberg and her partners used to go national.

New York City has made several reforms to its bail system, including launching its own citywide bail fund. But in the Bronx, Freedom Fund employees remain besieged by calls from families and loved ones of defendants who can’t afford bail. The Bronx Criminal Court is one of the most backlogged in the country, a place where misdemeanor cases — even for minor charges like riding a bike on a sidewalk or jumping a turnstile — can stretch on for months. More often than not, defendants must wait hours to see a judge, only to have their cases postponed, over and over again.

According to court data, in early 2016 there were more than 2,300 misdemeanor cases in the Bronx that had been pending for over a year. Misdemeanor defendants who wish to exercise their right to trial wait an average 827 days for a jury trial. Black, Latino and other people of color make up 95 percent of all misdemeanor arraignments in the Bronx.

Image: Vernon C. Bain Center

Outside the Vernon C. Bain Center, a floating jail in the South Bronx. Hannah Rappleye

If they don’t end up in the notoriously violent central New York City jail on Rikers Island, those defendants are often sent to the world’s largest floating jail, the Vernon C. Bain Center on the East River. The lock-up, which sticks to the Bronx shoreline like a barnacle, is known to both attorneys and defendants as “the Boat.”

Several times a week, the Freedom Fund’s “bail disrupters” travel to the Boat to bail out their clients, sometimes for amounts as low as $250. Past a trash processing plant and a fish market, down a long drive topped with concertina wire, is the bail office. After sliding money through a rusted slot at the window, the mostly African-American and Latino citizens who come to pay bail for their loved ones must sometimes wait for hours as paperwork is faxed back and forth between offices.

Novogratz traveled with a disrupter to the Boat, where the average daily population of male inmates hovers near 800. Around 2 p.m., after Novogratz and the disrupter paid bail for two men, he was shocked to find that they wouldn’t be able to get out of jail until 11 p.m.

Upon release, he said, they’d be given a city transit Metrocard and would have to walk to the nearest bus stop, only to come back the next morning to pick up their belongings.

Image: Clinton Washington

Clinton Washington, a bail ‘disrupter’ with the Bronx Freedom Fund, speaks to a client outside Bronx Criminal Court. Hannah Rappleye

“Every step of the way that day, you realized that there’s a system that was just kicking everybody in the knees,” Novogratz said. “There was absolutely no dignity built into the system. And all these people were arrested, not even convicted.”

“The presumption of innocence that we cherish in this country doesn’t exist if you don’t have the money,” he added. “And that seems outrageous.”

A 35-minute bus ride west of the Boat is the Freedom Fund’s office at the Bronx Criminal Court, where bail disrupters scroll through an ever-growing spreadsheet of potential clients, and send text messages or make calls to clients, their relatives, social workers, or significant others to remind them of court dates.

That kind of support, said Ezra Ritchin, project director for the Freedom Fund, has helped 95 percent of its clients return for their court dates.

“They get a text message or a call the week before saying like, ‘Hey, remember to find child care next week during your court date because it might last eight hours, even though you only see the judge for 20 seconds,'” Ritchin said. “‘Remember to call your job and ask for the day off.’ That’s the kind of support people need. They don’t need to be locked up in order to make it to a court date.”

Image: Robin Steinberg and Vincent Southerland

Robin Steinberg, founder and CEO of The Bail Project, sits in Bronx Criminal Court with board member Vincent Southerland, executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University. NBC News

Unaffordable bail can convince defendants their best chance of getting out of jail is to take a plea deal. Stripping away that coercive mechanism, Ritchin said, allows them to fight the charges — interrupting the cycle of guilty pleas sought by prosecutors looking for high conviction rates. There’s evidence that making bail translates into weak cases getting thrown out; in the Bronx, prosecutors have dismissed over 50 percent of cases of handled by the Freedom Fund.

“If you’re held [pending] bail and you come to court, the prosecutor will offer you a plea deal and say, “If you plead guilty, you get to go home today,”‘ Ritchin said. “If you maintain your innocence, you have to go back to jail and wait for your next court date….If you do take the prosecutor’s offer, you’re able to go home. But that criminal record will follow you for the rest of your life.”

“Our clients don’t have to make that decision,” he added. “They don’t have to plead guilty.”

‘They need to be home’

Although the Bail Project has not officially launched yet in Tulsa, it has already made a difference in the life of Chelsey Marshall and her mother, Tommi Ziegler.

While Marshall waited in a holding cell, attorney Ruth Hamilton, who had helped Marshall clear up her warrant days before, made a series of desperate but fruitless calls to the police. Ziegler was frantic about her pregnant daughter spending the weekend in jail.

Image: Ruth Hamilton and Chelsey Marshall

Attorney Ruth Hamilton speaks with her client, Chelsey Marshall, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. NBC News

“I asked [Ziegler] if there was anywhere that she could go to get the money or if there was anything she could do,” Hamilton said. “She just said no. You could tell how hard that was for her to not be able to pay for her daughter to get out of jail, and to know that the court was going to be closed on Monday.”

“It just felt so unjust for someone to be in jail for three days when they never should have been arrested,” she added. “I just thought that maybe there was something that somebody could do.”

That somebody was Steinberg. She contacted a donor in New York City, who offered to front the bail. Marshall was released.

“It was a blessing,” Ziegler said. “You don’t know how much it impacts a person’s life. When they don’t have the money, but they need to be home.”

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WATCH: Copwatch | Gang Unit Vehicle Stop Foot Bail | Tossed Gun | Man Tasered

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San Diego Copwatch April 10, 2018

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POLICE claim Man said ‘shoot me’ twice before he was shot to death by police, Audio Experts Heard Different

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Las Vegas Metro police shot and killed a 22-year-old man early Friday morning after he reached for a weapon and defied commands repeatedly, police said.

 

Officers Francisco Rivera, 28, and Padilla Mills, 23, were involved in the shooting in the 200 block of Madge Lane, near Charleston Boulevard and Sloan Lane.

Assistant Sheriff Brett Zimmerman on Monday said officers were on their way to another call when they spotted Junior David Lopez driving recklessly with two women in a blue Chrysler 300.

“Hey, what are you doing? Stay in the car man,” one of the officers yelled. “Stay in the ****ing car! Don’t move! Do not ****ing move!”

When officers stopped the vehicle, Lopez got out of the vehicle with a Smith and Wesson Bodyguard .380 firearm in his hand then tossed it on the ground, police said.

Zimmerman said Lopez defied officers’ commands to put his hands up and step away from the weapon. Instead Lopez grabbed the firearm and raised it, he said.

“Hey, get away from the gun!” officers yelled. “Do not move! Don’t reach for the gun, man. Do not reach the gun.”

Officers believe the body camera footage shows Lopez twice saying the words “shoot me.”

“I don’t know what was going through his head, but he was given ample opportunity to be taken into custody and he wasn’t,” Zimmerman said.

Officers Rivera and Mills both fired their weapons. Lopez fell to the ground and rolled over. Police say he reached for the guns once more. Officer Mills fired one more round, striking Lopez.

“We’re going to need medical for the subject,” one of the officers said, over his radio. “He’s reaching. Don’t reach for it! … His 4-13 is about one foot from his left hand. Don’t!”

Lopez was taken to Sunrise Hospital where he later died at 5:15 a.m.

The two women in the car were not injured. One was Lopez’ girlfriend and the owner of the vehicle. The other was a friend.

Both women on Monday night.

“I remember when we got pulled over they told us to get the **** out of the car, for him to get the **** out of the car. Why don’t I hear that in the video?” said Lopez’s girlfriend, Amber. “He was the best thing in my life… He said, ‘Don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot me.’ You can’t hear the don’t, but you can hear him. ‘Don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot me.'”

Assistant Sheriff Brett Zimmerman said 22-year-old Junior Lopez told officers to shoot him, twice.

“I don’t know what was going through his head but he was given ample opportunity to be taken into custody and he wasn’t.”

Lopez’s girlfriend said he was yelling, “Don’t shoot me!”

Lopez’s girlfriend also says officers told him to get out of the car… before they yelled at him to get back in the car. She argues that the first portion was conveniently cut out of the video released today.

“Everything they said is not true,” said Jorge Luis Martinez, Lopez’s father. “The video is not complete. ”

Lopez had one prior charge for false statement to a police officer in North Las Vegas in 2016

Both officers have been employed with Metro since May 2016. They are both assigned to the Community Policing Division Northeast Area Command. They were both placed on routine paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

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Freedom of Speech Everywhere except a Courthouse so Says the US Attorney General

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How an anti-illegal immigration YouTuber turned a $280 fine into a federal criminal trial

How an anti-illegal immigration YouTuber turned a $280 fine into a federal criminal trial

Gary Gileno

Gary Gileno is shown outside the federal courthouse on Friday before his trial. Gileno was fighting a $280 citation for failing to comply with orders while trying to bring a video camera into a L.A. County Sheriff oversight meeting in 2017. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

 

It began as a $280 citation for using a video camera in a courthouse.

But to Gary Gileno, at stake was much more than the couple hundred bucks he was told to pay.

An attorney for the anti-illegal immigration activist and prolific YouTuber told a judge Friday that the four-hour trial over the fine was really about preventing government abuse of power, protecting the rights of journalists and ensuring that citizens can hold public officials accountable.

“If he is convicted … it’ll chill speech, it’ll chill journalism, it’ll say the federal government has a superpower to do whatever it wants,” attorney William Becker said. “This is unprecedented. This is what we expect to see in a police state.”

A federal prosecutor dismissed the rhetoric, arguing the Class C misdemeanor charge was simply about Gileno’s refusal to follow a security officer’s orders.

The unusual legal battle came after Gileno, 32, tried to bring a video camera into a meeting of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission last year. California law specifically allows the public to use recording devices at such meetings, but the commission’s meeting in August was held at a federal appellate court building where filming is prohibited.

Someone just detained at federal courthouse, where public Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission meeting takin place, 4 trying 2 take pic

The commission, a civilian panel set up to monitor the Sheriff’s Department and listen to public concerns about the agency, had been gathering in different locations around the county since it began meeting in January 2017. This was the first time commissioners had met at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals building in Pasadena.

As Gileno entered the courthouse, deputy U.S. marshals told him he had to leave his camera in his car. Gileno insisted he had a right to record the meeting under the First Amendment and the state’s open meetings law, known as the Brown Act, and began filming the officers.

They responded by handcuffing and detaining him for about an hour.

After Gileno was cited, Robert C. Bonner, a former federal judge who chairs the commission, told The Times he wasn’t aware of certain provisions of the state’s open meetings law and relied on the county’s lawyers for legal advice.

Rather than pay the fine, Gileno opted to take his case to trial, facing a penalty of up to a $10,000 fine and 30 days in jail if found guilty.

Gileno, who began his YouTube career after showing up at his local council meeting in West Covina, said he has made a living off of his channel in recent years. His copious videos — 3,237 and counting — focus primarily on denouncing illegal immigration and promoting supporters of President Trump. His criminal case may have been a boon for his channel — a recent screed on his own prosecution was viewed more than 10,000 times.

On Friday, two court security officers who clashed with Gileno took the stand and testified that there were signs clearly posted saying photography wasn’t allowed in the courthouse. They said Gileno grew belligerent and disruptive, turning on his camera after being warned several times that it was not allowed.

Testifying in his own defense, Gileno said he was a freelance citizen journalist who has attended and filmed local government meetings and legislative town halls for about five years.

“I believe in the United States of America, you should be able to keep tabs on the government,” he said.

In more than 250 other public meetings he attended, he said, he never had an issue with bringing in his video camera. He said the security officer all of a sudden “exploded” at him, so he turned on his camera “to document what I felt was a violation of my rights at the time.”

Assistant U.S. Atty. Benedetto Lee Balding said Gileno’s disruption of security officers working at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was no small matter. It was Gileno who escalated the encounter by refusing to go along with the officers’ orders, he said.

“He decided unilaterally he didn’t have to follow the rules,” the prosecutor said.

Becker, who primarily represents conservatives and Christians in free-speech cases, worked for free on Gileno’s case. He argued that the federal courthouse essentially became a “limited public forum” when it hosted the commission meeting, which Gileno should have been allowed to film under the state law.

Magistrate Judge Jean P. Rosenbluth said she could understand why Gileno was angry and frustrated given his past experience filming the meetings, but she said that didn’t excuse his failure to follow orders. Security at the appellate courthouse, where justices could be filmed without their knowledge, was a serious concern, the judge said.

“Even if these seem arbitrary or don’t make any sense to Mr. Gileno or anybody else, clearly they serve this very important purpose,” Rosenbluth said, finding Gileno guilty.

Acknowledging that a “misunderstanding” had led to the kerfuffle, the prosecutor recommended a sentence of no fine, which would leave Gileno having to pay just $35 in court fees. Rosenbluth said she felt the need for “some consequences” and ordered Gileno to pay a $50 fine, bringing his total penalty to $85 with the fees.

Gileno said he was “outraged” and “astounded.” After the verdict, he turned to nine supporters in the audience, including a man in a red “Make California Great Again” hat, and exclaimed, “I was never read my rights!”

His attorney said they would seriously consider an appeal and possibly a civil lawsuit against the government.

“What the judge just said is if a city council can move to a federal building, they can keep the meeting secret,” Gileno said. “That’s grossly illegal.”

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