Big bails: Prosecutors and defense attorneys find common ground over this issue

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REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (KRON) — Big bails. Do they make sense?

Two groups who usually disagree in a courtroom — defense attorneys and prosecutors — are agreeing on this issue in multiple San Francisco Bay Area counties.

Tiffany Li remains as the “textbook” example of why the cash bail system is flawed, according to San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. A jury found the Hillsborough heiress not guilty of murdering Keith Green, the father of their two children.

Tiffany Li
Tiffany Li / AP photo

While she was waiting for her murder trial to begin, and even as it was ongoing, Li continued living in a $9-million mansion. Li was accustomed to having a private chef and live-in nanny. Her family was rich enough to help her post a record-breaking $35-million bail, mostly through pledging $62-million in Bay Area real estate properties. Courts demand double the actual bail when property is pledged instead of cash.

Li’s co-defendant and former fiance — Kaveh Bayat — could not come close to being able to afford his own $35-million bail. The first time Bayat walked free was the day that San Mateo County prosecutors announced all charges against him were dropped. Like Li, he was never convicted of any charges related to Green’s death.

“The bail was outrageous,” Bayat’s defense attorney, John May, told KRON4 Monday.

The purpose of bail is primarily twofold: 1. Ensuring that a person charged with a crime appears in court. 2. To keep someone who poses a danger to the community out of society.

Another large bail was recently set by a judge in Contra Costa County. A foster parent accused of sexually abusing several foster children is being held behind bars in the Martinez Detention Facility in lieu of $31.5 million bail.

Simon Chavez, 64, of Antioch, pleaded not guilty to 63 felony counts.

“His bail is $31.5 million – this is set by the court’s bail schedule and then by the individual judge hearing the case,” said Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Scott Alonso.

Chavez’s son, Simon Chavez Jr., 31, of Atwater, is also charged with sexually abusing children.

Chavez Sr. fostered children through Contra Costa’s Children and Family Services division for at least 18 years. Chavez Jr. worked as a California prison corrections officer. According to a criminal complaint, most of the alleged abuse happened between 2012 and 2015, and the victims were five underage girls. The father and son were arrested last summer, and they are scheduled to appear back in court Wednesday.

Wagstaffe spoke with KRON4 and explained why he and San Francisco’s new District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, are convinced that the bail system needs to be reformed.

“I, for years now, have been very strongly against the bail system. I am very hopeful that the initiative that is coming November by the bail bonds people fails miserably, and that we are able to go to a new system where people are held in custody if they dangerous. I’m very hopeful that by the second Tuesday in November, we are able to say there is no longer money bail and we are able to detain (serious child sex offenders), or people who commit murder. I don’t know of a single murder case, anybody charged with murder who does not create concern for the community’s safety. There should be no bail available for them,” Wagstaffe said.

“(The Tiffany Li case), I’ve used this case in, I can’t tell you how many speeches … in my speaking to the legislatures and talking to the chief justices, I’ve used this case as the example for why a change is needed. The new district attorney in San Francisco, that is one of Mr. Boudin’s big points. And on this topic, we are arm-in-arm. I am glad we have a common point that we can be arm-in-arm on. I will join with him in any efforts we can to try to make that come about,” Wagstaffe said.

Li’s years of freedom — between when she posted bail and when her murder trial began — was “extremely unusual,” Wagstaffe said.

“In over 40 years in our county, I can think of about three (other) examples,” of defendants maintaining their freedom while they were on trial for murder.

They were all wealthy, Wagstaffe said.

As San Francisco’s newly-elected district attorney, Boudin announced last month, “Today we announced a formal policy ending the use of money bail by our prosecutors as a condition for pretrial detention. From this point forward, pretrial detention will be based on public safety, not on wealth.”

While a suspects waits for their trial to begin, they will not be locked behind bars based on how much money they have. Instead, San Francisco’s system is entirely based on the suspect’s “risk” to society.

“For years I’ve been fighting to end this discriminatory and unsafe approach to pretrial detention,” Boudin said. “From this point forward, pretrial detention will be based on public safety, not on wealth.”

Boudin and others who stand against the money bail system, argue:

  • U.S. taxpayers spend $38 million per day to jail people who are awaiting trial.
  • Pretrial detention, and the disruption that causes to a person’s life, can lead to a 32 percent increase in the likelihood of future felony charges and has an immediate impact on an individual’s ability to maintain an income and housing.

So what does San Francisco’s new bail system look like?

The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office wrote in its new pretrial detention and release conditions:

“Absent other open cases, warrants, en routes, parole, probation, post release community supervision, or mandatory supervision, or other legal encumbrances, pretrial detention shall only be considered at in: 1. Felony offenses involving acts of violence on another person. 2. Felony offenses where the defendant has threatened another with great bodily harm. 3. Felony sexual assault offenses on another person.”

“Pretrial detention shall only be considered when the facts are evident and clear and convincing evidence shows a substantial likelihood that the defendant’s release would result in great bodily harm to others or the defendant’s flight.”

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