How Does Bail Work in Pennsylvania?
If you are arrested in Pennsylvania, a short time after your arrest (within 48 hours) you must appear before a judge or bail commissioner at which time a form of bail will be set. How does bail work in Pennsylvania? Why is Bail Set? What is the Purpose of Bail? How do you Post Bail? What happens to the Bail I Post when your case is over?
What is Bail?
Bail is the tool used by courts, judges, and bail commissioners in Pennsylvania and its counties as assurance or motivation, for a defendant to appear at all future court dates. Everyone charged with a crime in Pennsylvania is Constitutionally entitled to bail per the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions. The exception to this is those charged with crimes such as rape or murder. Bail is not supposed to be a punishment since all defendants are innocent until proven guilty; however, that is not always the case. The true purpose of Bail is to secure a defendant’s appearance at future court dates and for some situations, to protect society from an alleged dangerous individual. In addition to being entitled to bail, the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions prohibit a court from imposing excessive bail.
How is the Bail amount Determined?
In Pennsylvania, bail is set after a defendant has a bail hearing before a Judge or Bail Commissioner. At the bail hearing the defendant’s charges are read and the Judge or Bail Commissioner will hear arguments from the District Attorney and the lawyer representing the defendant; the defendant and defendant’s family, friends, or character witnesses may speak as well. The Judge or Bail Commissioner will also review documentation and other available information about the defendant. The following factors are used to determine the appropriate bail for a specific case:
- The nature of the offense and any mitigating or aggravating circumstances regarding the alleged crime (level of violence, use of weapons, characteristics of victim, place and time of the crime, etc.)
- The defendant’s employment history, nature of employment, and if ascertainable, financial means
- The defendant’s family relationships and status as a parent or caregiver
- The defendant’s residence and ties to the community in which the crime allegedly occurred
- The defendant’s age, community reputation, mental and health condition
- The defendant’s prior criminal history of arrests and convictions
- The defendant’s likelihood or possibility to flee the State or Country
- The defendant’s prior history of failure to appear in court
- Any other factors the court or bail commissions finds relevant to setting appropriate bail
It is crucial to have a lawyer at the bail hearing as well as any family, friends, or other individuals to speak on your behalf and verify any positive representations your attorney or you make to the court or bail commissioner. This can make all the difference in securing your freedom.
What are the Bail options in Pennsylvania?
Release on Recognizance (ROR)
ROR is the ideal bail scenario. If a defendant is given ROR, all he/she must do is sign a form promising to appear at all court appearances. This is typically granted in cases where: (1) it is the defendant’s first arrest; (2) the alleged crime was not one of violence; (3) the defendant has strong family or employment ties to the community; and (4) the defendant is not a “flight risk”.
Release on Non-monetary Conditions
This type of bail requires no payment of money. However, the court must be satisfied the defendant will comply with the “non-monetary conditions”. For example, a defendant can be restricted where he/she may travel, surrender his/her passport, surrender weapons, comply with a stay-away order, remain drug and alcohol-free, continue mental health treatment or enroll in any drug/alcohol, anger management, or parenting programs, and maintain employment.
Release on Unsecured Bail Bond
This is another bail type where no payment is required. The bail is not “secured” by money or property. The defendant must sign an agreement stating he/she will be liable for a certain amount of money if he/she fails to appear, or if the defendant violates other non-monetary conditions of bail. In this scenario, bail may be set at $10,000.00 unsecured. As long as the defendant complies will all bail requirements, the $10,000.00 is never paid; however, if there is a violation, the $10,000.00 must be paid for the defendant to be released unless the violation results in a revocation of bail or increase in the bail amount.
Release on Nominal Bail – Use of Bail Bondsman
This refers to surety bonds through another party that acts as a surety, such as a Bail Bondsman. The defendant or Bail Bondsman must deposit a small (“nominal”) fee that is acceptable by the court, and the Bail Bondsman will act a surety for your compliance with all bail conditions, mainly that you appear at all court hearings.
The Bail Bondsman may require collateral for posting the bond, such as attaching a lien to the defendant’s or a family member’s home. The Bail Bondsman will typically charge a flat fee (% of the bail amount) or monthly fee to act as the defendant’s surety; these fees are typically non-refundable. The Bail Bondsman may revoke the bond in cases where the defendant appears likely to skip bail or fails to cooperate with the Bail Bondsman. If a defendant fails to comply with the bail conditions and has his/her bail revoked, the Bail Bondsman must physically recover the defendant within a certain period, and before any county officials do, and present the defendant to the court. If the Bail Bondsman fails to achieve this within the required time, the Bail Bondsman is financially responsible for the full amount of bail. The Bail Bondsman will typically hire a bounty hunter (bail enforcement agent) to track down the defendant. When engaging the services of a Bail Bondsman, the defendant or defendant’s family will be required to sign multiple documents and enter into an enforceable contract whereby the Bail Bondsman may sue the defendant or defendant’s family in court for any money the Bail Bondsman is not paid or must pay to the court.
In Pennsylvania, most counties allow the use of a Bail Bondsman. The most prominent area where Bail Bondsman are not common in Philadelphia. This is because Philadelphia’s standard practice is that all bail set only requires a deposit of 10% of the bail for the defendant to be released.
Release on a Monetary Condition
In this situation the court or bail commissioner sets a monetary amount of bail such as $25,000.00. Due to the nature of the case, the defendant’s financial situation, or the county rules/practices, nominal bail or use of a Bail Bondsman is either not permitted or not an option due to county rules or refusal by the Bail Bondsman. The defendant is put in a situation where the full amount of cash ($25,000.00) must be paid, or collateral equal or greater than the cash amount is posted (real estate, automobile). Rule 524 provides that the monetary condition “shall not be greater than is necessary to reasonably ensure the defendant’s appearance and compliance with the conditions of the bail bond.”
One caveat to this situation is that some counties, such as Philadelphia, or judges upon request, may allow the defendant to post 10% of the bail amount to gain release. For example, the court may set bail at $50,000.00 cash, but permit on its own or after argument, the defendant to pay 10% ($5,000.00) for release; the balance of $45,000.00 is then treated as unsecured and not due unless bail conditions are violated.
What Happens to any money I pay to the Court for Bail?
In most Pennsylvania counties, if the defendant complies with all bail conditions, any money paid will be returned to the defendant or person who paid the bail upon presenting a bail receipt to the court. The money will be returned regardless of the outcome of the case; even if the defendant pleads or is found guilty, the bail money will be returned. Some counties will deduct a percentage of the money that is returned such as 5% – 10%.
In counties such as Philadelphia, the 10% bail payment situations can be a great tool to retain a private lawyer. For example, if you post 10% of $50,000.00, hence $5,000.00, that amount is held, secured, and guaranteed to be returned if the defendant is fully compliant with all bail conditions. Instead of the defendant coming up with cash to pay an attorney all or a portion of the lawyer’s fee, the defendant can sign the bail receipt over to the attorney. The lawyer will then file the bail assignment with the court, and upon the case conclusion and the defendant’s compliance with all bail conditions, the court will release the money being held to the lawyer directly. In this situation, the defendant may be able to achieve two goals with the same cash; bail themselves out and retain a lawyer of the defendant’s choosing.
One last note about bail is that after bail is set, a defendant through his/her lawyer can file a Bail Reduction Motion and have a hearing before a judge, or make the motion at any court hearing if the circumstances call for such a motion. Typical situations in which this is a necessary action are obviously if one believes the bail set is too high for the circumstances, therefore, violates the US and State Constitutions and appears punitive or discriminatory. Other situations are if a hearing is continued through no fault of the defendant and having the defendant continue to be incarcerated as a result is unjust, or if after any pre-trial hearing or case revelations, some charges (the more serious ones) are dismissed or withdrawn changing the circumstances of the case and causing the current bail to no longer fit the remaining charges.
Controversy Surrounding Cash Bail
Cash bail is a hot and widely debated topic in the United States Criminal Justice system. The main arguments against this practice are:
- It punishes people who upon arrest are innocent until proven guilty
- People who have limited or no financial resources may end up spending a significant time in prison when they are only charged with a low level or non-violent crime but cannot afford bail of even $1,000.00
- Due to the nature, history, practices, and biases within the United States Criminal Justice system, minorities are disproportionately negatively impacted, disadvantaged, and punished by the cash bail system, making it a discriminatory practice
Despite one’s opinion about cash bail, it is the norm and reality if arrested in Pennsylvania. Therefore, if you find yourself facing a bail hearing in Pennsylvania, it is vital you have a trusted, experienced, and aggressive lawyer at your side to do everything possible to have you released without bail or have a minimal amount of bail set. Call Paul S. Peters III, Esquire immediately to discuss his representation at your or your loved one’s bail hearing. Paul S. Peters III, Esquire can be reached 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and will appear for bail hearings at any time of day.
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