Hurricane Michael changes due process for Fla. inmates
Thousands of downed trees and power lines made it impossible for a judge to get to the jail, the warden said
By Zack Mcdonald
The News Herald
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Dressed down in a Polo shirt and flip flops instead of the ceremonial black robe, Judge Thomas Welch sat in the Bay County Jail on Wednesday for the 10th consecutive day to undertake a practice not seen in Bay County for years — inmates meeting face-to-face with a judge during their first appearance and bond hearing.
In the days since the historically unprecedented storm besieged Bay County, like almost everywhere else, the jail and courthouses were left without the ability to transmit communications. With ongoing repairs at each, the ability to hold first appearances in the usual fashion, via video transmitted from the jail to the courthouse, has been put on hold.
Welch said that being face-to-face with inmates does not affect the process he goes through in determining a bond. He still looks at circumstances of the arrest, their residency and criminal history in every decision. However, being secluded in the jail, one factor he would sometimes consider is absent — the inmate's family, who would usually have an opportunity to be at the courthouse and address the judge.
"Sometimes I know what I'm going to do, and it doesn't matter what (family members) say," Welch said. "Not to be callous, but there are cases that demand a certain response. In some other cases, (the inmate) could be at a disadvantage because the family is not represented. But we just do not have the capability for them to be present. These are the conditions the storm left us with."
As each inmate stood before Welch, they were flanked on either side by jail personnel. Emotions run high when the amount of a bond can mean the arrestees are unable to get back to their home, family or jobs. In each case, the decision can bring objection or a sigh of relief.
Some inmates bring with them to their first appearances storm-related excuses for their arrest.
"I came down from Bonifay to check on some family members, and my car broke down," Justin Moore told the court was his reason for violating the disaster curfew.
Gary Richardson said he'd been at a house when the inhabitants decided to rob him. So he had no choice but to be out after curfew, he said.
"I was the victim," Richardson told the court. "They drug me outside and tried to roll me for my bicycle. That's the truth."
One new arrestee, Justin Tabory, had been arrested for domestic violence and was asking for the court to not issue a "no contact" order.
"I have no idea what to do," he said. "She will be on the street. Our whole house got demolished, and we're staying with my mom and dad."
In the two days that followed Hurricane Michael, there was no way to hold first appearances, said Bay County Sheriff's Office Maj. Rick Anglin, warden of the jail. He said the thousands of downed trees and power lines left by the storm made it impossible for a judge to get to the jail.
"We had to wait for the roads to get cleared," Anglin said. "On the flip side, we had very few people coming to the jail."
On Wednesday, public defender Kim Jewell, who typically works homicide and death penalty cases, was present to represent the inmates' legal interests. But even with a seasoned defense attorney present, it's not always easy to predict when an arrestee is going to say something they might regret in future court appearances.
Welch said inmates frequently curse him. Usually, the inability to control their temper would garner an additional 15 days in jail for contempt of court. Under the current circumstances, Welch said he was exercising leniency.
Those days, the jail was also operating without power or running water. Debris crews and jail personnel attempted to clear a path for the arrival of replacement generators. Those issues have been resolved.
Anglin said the inmate phone system is still down, but they are not without the ability to post bond. Inmates can currently post bonds with cash, money order, a cashier's check or a family member can go through a bondsman, he said.
"The courts have bent over backwards to work with us during all this," Anglin said. "Because of us being able to work together, we've been able to ensure inmates receive due process."