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Ventura County

Lawyers Vow to Challenge High Bails

Courts: Two recent Ventura County rulings where fees exceeded the norm were rejected. Prosecutors say public safety is the issue.

July 01, 2001|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the wake of two controversial high bail cases, Ventura County defense lawyers say they are stepping up their scrutiny of Superior Court judges to make sure suspects accused of crimes are not being jailed unfairly.

In the last six months, a state appeals court twice lowered bail for defendants after concluding that a Ventura County judge abused his discretion by setting bail five and 10 times higher than recommended amounts.

The defendants had no prior criminal records. Their alleged crimes did not involve weapons or recent threats to victims. But prosecutors argued that the defendants posed a risk to public safety, and their requests for hefty bail increases were granted.

Defense attorneys say judges routinely use public safety as a basis for setting high bail in felony cases, a practice that lawyers fear undermines constitutional protections against punishing defendants before they have been found guilty.

"My experience is there is not enough discretion in deciding who presents an actual threat," Deputy Public Defender Christina Briles said.

County public defenders now say they will immediately appeal the next time a judge deviates from the county's bail schedule--set by local judges themselves--without clear evidence of a suspect's danger potential.

"We are ready to go," Chief Deputy Public Defender Michael McMahon said. "We can be back before the Court of Appeal within 24 hours."

Appellate courts are typically hesitant to interfere with the setting of bail. But that changed in Ventura County in December with the case of accused rapist Andrew Luster.

The great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor, Luster, 36, had been held in lieu of $10 million--10 times higher than the bail schedule--on charges that he drugged and sexually assaulted three women at his Mussel Shoals beach house.

Prosecutors had sought a bail increase, saying Luster posed a flight risk and a danger to women. The request was granted by Superior Court Judge Arturo Gutierrez, a former public defender who presides over the arraignment court.

1st Reversals in 18 Years

Luster's lawyers filed a writ to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura. There, prosecutors again argued that Luster was a dangerous multimillionaire with the financial means to leave the country. But the justices weren't swayed.

"In our collective 100-plus years of legal experience, we have never seen such a bail setting," Justice Kenneth Yegan wrote in an opinion with concurring Justices Arthur Gilbert and Steven Perren. "There may be instances where $10 million would be appropriate. This is not one of them."

The ruling marked the first time in at least 18 years that the court had reversed a judge's decision setting bail. Six months later, it happened again.

This time, the justices concluded that Gutierrez abused discretion by setting bail at five times higher than the bail schedule for Cheryl Christie, ex-wife of Hells Angels leader George Christie Jr., who is charged in a broad drug-and-racketeering case.

Prosecutors say Cheryl Christie was a co-conspirator in a narcotics ring that sold drugs to high school students in Ventura and Ojai. They argued that she had close ties to the Hells Angels and posed a danger to the community.

In granting the bail increase, Gutierrez said: "I am going to protect the high school kids [and] leave bail as it is set at a half-million dollars." He could not be reached last week for further comment.

Cheryl Christie's bail was subsequently reduced to $100,000. She was released from custody last week.

McMahon filed a brief in the Christie case, arguing that the county prosecutors frequently urge judges to set high bail in the name of public safety, without backing up their claims.

"The prosecutors," McMahon said in an interview last week, "invoke this mantra of public safety without any specifics."

Not true, prosecutors say.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Redmond, who supervises the county's felony unit, acknowledged that prosecutors aggressively seek bail increases in serious criminal cases in which the release of a defendant would pose a danger to the community.

But he said such requests are not commonplace and are not handled lightly.

"In the vast majority of cases, we follow the established bail schedule," Redmond said. "But there are those circumstances--gang cases, failures to appear--that make us go beyond that established schedule."

In those instances, he said, prosecutors must submit sworn declarations from law enforcement officers explaining why the standard bail amount is insufficient.

"We can't just stroll into court and say, 'Hey, Your Honor, can you set bail higher?' It is not a barter system," Redmond said. "It requires some basis for us to request an increase in the bail schedule."

The schedule is a 30-page list of offenses--felonies, misdemeanors, vehicle and health code violations--with corresponding monetary amounts that judges use as a baseline for setting bail.

Bail schedules vary from county to county. They are set by judges and reviewed annually.

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