Earlier last Friday George Zimmerman appeared in court to learn formally what the charges were against him filed by Special Prosecutor Angela Corey.
This was very much a formality as we’ve all known for a couple days Zimmerman will face second degree murder charges as referenced in my earlier blog on this subject. Early on Friday April 13, Zimmerman’s attorney announced his intention to request a reasonable bond for Zimmerman at an April 20 hearing. The questions are, will he get it and how does a court go about making that determination?
Criminal defendants in Florida are entitled to a bond for most crimes. Capital felonies punishable by death, life felonies punishable up to life imprisonment, and violations of probation are generally allegations that are scrutinized most by judges and could lead to a bond being denied. In Zimmerman’s case, second degree murder is a first degree felony punishable by life. A look at the Seminole County “First Appearance Manual” (a guide judges and attorneys use to base bonds awarded and bonds requested on) on page 31 lists a life felony as a crime that the Court has discretion to deny bond on altogether. This doesn’t necessarily mean the Court will deny bond, however many jurisdictions use bond schedules much like this one based off of Florida statute to find uniformity in awarding bonds.
So, now that the Court can deny bond, does that mean they will? Not necessarily.
Pursuant to Florida Statute 903.046, the Court will look at the following criteria in its determination of whether to award a bond and if so, how much:
(a) The nature and circumstances of the offense charged.
(b) The weight of the evidence against the defendant.
(c) The defendant’s family ties, length of residence in the community, employment history, financial resources, and mental condition.
(d) The defendant’s past and present conduct, including any record of convictions, previous flight to avoid prosecution, or failure to appear at court proceedings. However, any defendant who had failed to appear on the day of any required court proceeding in the case at issue, but who had later voluntarily appeared or surrendered, shall not be eligible for a recognizance bond; and any defendant who failed to appear on the day of any required court proceeding in the case at issue and who was later arrested shall not be eligible for a recognizance bond or for any form of bond which does not require a monetary undertaking or commitment equal to or greater than $2,000 or twice the value of the monetary commitment or undertaking of the original bond, whichever is greater. Notwithstanding anything in this section, the court has discretion in determining conditions of release if the defendant proves circumstances beyond his or her control for the failure to appear. This section may not be construed as imposing additional duties or obligations on a governmental entity related to monetary bonds.
(e) The nature and probability of danger which the defendant’s release poses to the community.
(f) The source of funds used to post bail or procure an appearance bond, particularly whether the proffered funds, real property, property, or any proposed collateral or bond premium may be linked to or derived from the crime alleged to have been committed or from any other criminal or illicit activities. The burden of establishing the noninvolvement in or nonderivation from criminal or other illicit activity of such proffered funds, real property, property, or any proposed collateral or bond premium falls upon the defendant or other person proffering them to obtain the defendant’s release.
(g) Whether the defendant is already on release pending resolution of another criminal proceeding or on probation, parole, or other release pending completion of a sentence.
(h) The street value of any drug or controlled substance connected to or involved in the criminal charge. It is the finding and intent of the Legislature that crimes involving drugs and other controlled substances are of serious social concern, that the flight of defendants to avoid prosecution is of similar serious social concern, and that frequently such defendants are able to post monetary bail using the proceeds of their unlawful enterprises to defeat the social utility of pretrial bail. Therefore, the courts should carefully consider the utility and necessity of substantial bail in relation to the street value of the drugs or controlled substances involved.
(i) The nature and probability of intimidation and danger to victims.
(j) Whether there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed a new crime while on pretrial release.
(k) Any other facts that the court considers relevant.
(l) Whether the crime charged is a violation of chapter 874 or alleged to be subject to enhanced punishment under chapter 874. If any such violation is charged against a defendant or if the defendant is charged with a crime that is alleged to be subject to such enhancement, he or she shall not be eligible for release on bail or surety bond until the first appearance on the case in order to ensure the full participation of the prosecutor and the protection of the public.
Considering the above, I would focus on subsection A, B, C, D, and E in arguing for his bond. The nature of the offense is obviously a murder allegation. This criterion overlaps the weight of the evidence criterion in that though there is an allegation of murder and the amount of evidence against Zimmerman is an unknown to this point. This will very likely be the case on April 20 based on a relatively short amount of time between the initial date of this blog (written April 16) and the hearing date.
Though charges were brought, it seems the story is one known only by Zimmerman himself and prospectively two other witnesses who claim to have seen the fight, in addition to one other who did not see but heard cries and a scuffle. With that being said and using a reasonable doubt standard, at this point it seems the weight of evidence against Zimmerman, is balanced with the weight of evidence helping Zimmerman. I don’t believe those criteria will be as detrimental to Zimmerman as it is to most charged with a similar crime.
With respect to ties to the community and how long he’s been in the Sanford area, it is my understanding that he’s been there since 2009 and considers the area his home. I would argue that this is to his benefit in arguing that he is not a risk of flight as he has substantial ties to the community having lived there for three years and has a wife that may (or may not since this dust up) remain there.
It’s unclear as to what Zimmerman’s criminal history is. I have read he was twice accused in 2005 of incidents involving criminal mischief and violence. However, he does hold a concealed weapon’s permit in Florida and considering the strict requirements for this privilege, it appears as if Zimmerman is pretty clean. If that is the case, that will be to his benefit at his bond hearing under subsection (d) of 903.046.
With respect to the risk of flight Zimmerman poses, here I would jump up and down on the fact that the man turned himself into the authorities. Zimmerman could just as easily hopped on a plane to Wallawalladingdong, Afghanistan when this oven was preheating and never have been heard from again. He didn’t. At the least he has honored his responsibility to answer to his charge. That, arguably, makes him far from a flight risk.
Lastly, and the criteria likely to raise the most eyebrows for advocates of Trayvon Martin is the “danger to the community” Zimmerman poses. It can be argued that this incident, if in fact he is at fault, is an isolated one and he poses no further risk to society. Martin’s advocates will argue that he is a rogue, seeking vigilante justice and that he has done just that with Trayvon. They will cite his prior 46 non-emergency calls to 911 between August 2004 and the date of this shooting to say he has a propensity to play “supercop” and try to do the job of the professionals on his own. On this one, they may be correct and they may not.
All of the above will be argued just the opposite by the State Attorney’s Office and there will likely be a written pretrial detention brief filed to prevent such release of Zimmerman.
All in all, Zimmerman is undoubtedly located in the safest possible place he could be as he sits in the Seminole County Jail. With that being said, I do believe a reasonable bond will be awarded to Zimmerman in concert with the charge and I believe that amount will be somewhere between $50,000-$150,000. I believe Zimmerman’s history, ties to the community, and disputable evidence against him allow for a judge to grant a bond in good faith and allow for Zimmerman's release.
We shall see!