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SLO County police need training on increasing bail, grand jury says

Francisco Javier Chavez, 28, an undocumented immigrant who was living in Paso Robles, was arrested in 2015 for suspected child abuse but remains at large after posting bail and failing to appear in court. Chavez’s case was the basis for a June 2016 Grand Jury report on bail enhancements.
Francisco Javier Chavez, 28, an undocumented immigrant who was living in Paso Robles, was arrested in 2015 for suspected child abuse but remains at large after posting bail and failing to appear in court. Chavez’s case was the basis for a June 2016 Grand Jury report on bail enhancements.

Police officers should consider requesting higher bail amounts for people arrested on suspicion of certain serious crimes but don’t understand how to and rarely do so, the San Luis Obispo County grand jury said in a report released Monday.

In the report, “Keeping Suspects in Custody: When is Scheduled Bail not Enough?” the county’s civil grand jury recommended that, in order to get all local law enforcement on the same page, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office should take the lead in drafting uniform policies and training for officers to request bail enhancements if a person represents such a danger to public safety.

Recommendations by the civil grand jury are not legally binding. On Monday, no local agencies had submitted voluntary responses.

The report was spurred by the case of Francisco Javier Chavez in August 2015.

The Paso Robles Police Department said at the time that Chavez, an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in the city, was arrested after allegedly beating the 2-year-old daughter of his live-in girlfriend. The extent of the girl’s injuries — a broken leg, two broken arms, a compressed spine, bruises and a urinary tract infection — were so serious that she was transferred to Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera, where Paso Robles detectives determined Chavez was responsible.

A Tribune investigation into Chavez’s release showed he was booked into County Jail on a single felony charge of child abuse. Based on the county’s bail schedule, his bail was set at $100,000, despite Chavez’s past conviction for felony assault and at least four other local arrests for offenses dating back to 2006. Records show he had been deported in 2014 following a DUI conviction.

Early in their investigation, the Grand Jury found that local police departments had “little or no knowledge” of their ability to request increased bail and “little to no training” of how to do it, the report reads.

2015-16 San Luis Obispo Grand Jury

By the time officials had announced the arrest, Chavez had already posted bail despite an immigration detainer request filed electronically by the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a nonbinding request indicating its desire to take the arrested person into custody for administrative proceedings that could lead to deportation.

Chavez failed to appear at his arraignment in San Luis Obispo Superior Court and remains at large with a local warrant for his arrest. Several local law enforcement officials familiar with the case have said they believe he has fled to Mexico.

In a statement to The Tribune, a Paso Robles police sergeant blamed Chavez’s release and subsequent disappearance on the Sheriff’s Office. The public outcry that followed prompted San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson to defend the county’s actions in a Fox News segment.

Parkinson said at the time that it is illegal to hold a person in custody or deny them bail solely on their immigration status. He added that though a person may have an ICE hold placed on them, that doesn’t mean the federal agency will send agents to be there when the person is released from jail.

In 1982, California voters passed Prop. 4, known as the Victims’ Bill of Rights, which shifted the focus and intent of bail to keeping potential dangerous arrestees in custody rather than ensuring they appear in court. The law provided guidance to Superior Court judges for setting bail in their counties and gave them the discretion to consider things such as the seriousness of the offense and a person’s criminal record.

Judges in California counties are required annually to establish a fixed bail schedule based on the type of offense a person is booked into jail for. But if an arrested person is able to post bail before their court arraignment, a judge does not have a chance to amend bail as allowed under Prop. 4, as was the case in Chavez’s arrest.

The state Legislature amended the law so an arresting officer can request that a judge set bail higher than the scheduled amount if the officer believes the offense warrants it. Officers may do this if they suspect the person has an extensive criminal record, is in the country illegally, has a record of not appearing in court or is a continuing threat to a specific victim or public safety.

During its investigation, the grand jury reviewed policies and training information from the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office and each of the county’s seven city police departments related to assessing bail amounts and requesting enhanced bail. The report says that jurors also inquired as to the impact ICE holds have on officers’ decisions whether or not to seek a bail increase, and found that officers did not have a “clear understanding of ICE holds’ ineffectiveness in keeping individuals in custody.”

The report notes that the District Attorney’s Office provides all local law enforcement officers with a training memorandum that offers instruction and a template that officers may use to request altered bail amounts and submit them to a judge electronically at any time.

But early in its investigation, the grand jury found that local police departments had “little or no knowledge” of their ability to request increased bail and “little to no training” of how to do it, the report reads. One unnamed department reported that although some of its detectives were experienced in requesting bail increases, that knowledge is only passed verbally from one detective to another, and no department had written policies or training in place for the requests.

The report stated that the Sheriff’s Office was the only local agency to provide their detectives with the training and sought bail enhancements when appropriate.

Though department representatives told the grand jury that they should have consistent policies in place, most reported that crimes serious enough for those requests occur “very infrequently.”

The report does not state that the grand jury interviewed any defense attorneys or civil rights experts for input on the bail process or how bail enhancements may potentially be misused or abused.

The grand jury foreperson could not be reached for comment Monday.

In its four recommendations, the grand jury urged the District Attorney’s Office to coordinate the development of uniform written procedures and training for officers to request bail enhancements.

The report was one of just two released so far by the 2015-16 grand jury, which convened June 24. This year’s grand jury was sworn in last week.

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