Crime Scenes: Bail set at $175,000 for sign, flag theft

It was a "classic college prank," their lawyer said, and the three students visiting from Canada got busted. The cops say they stole a parking sign, an American flag and a padlock from the grounds of the Johns Hopkins University last weekend.

Two men and a woman were charged with two counts of destruction of property and theft. Three misdemeanors. It was Saturday, Oct. 23, at 3:30 in the morning.

Police took the 18-year-old woman, Renee Gladilen, to a District Court commissioner, who set bail at $1,000. She quickly posted and was released.

Police took the two men, Justin Cruanes and Leif Charles MacDonald, 23, to a different commissioner, who set bail for each at $175,000.

Cruanes' father was able to get $17,500 to a bail bondsman — who requires 10 percent payment — and get his son out of Central Booking. The young man walked out Monday at 2 a.m.

MacDonald wasn't so lucky, but his father is an attorney at a big law firm in Paris and was able to get hold of a former federal prosecutor turned defense lawyer in Baltimore, who hustled over to court on Monday.

The result: A District Court judge reduced the bail to $1,000, which MacDonald quickly posted.

All three decided to get out of town and return to Montreal and McGill University. But Cruanes — who holds U.S. and French passports — couldn't go. Unlike his two classmates, he is not a Canadian citizen, and his attorney said he is not allowed to cross the border because of the pending charge.

This bail situation, said the students' lawyer, Brian Thompson, represents a glaring inadequacy in how bail is set for people who are arrested. It comes shortly after a Baltimore Circuit Court judge issued a nonbinding opinion that defendants should be entitled to legal representation at initial appearances before bail commissioners.

The $1,000 bail for Gladilen seemed appropriate. The $175,000 for Cruanes and MacDonald seemed excessive. And Thompson said a lawyer might have been able to convince the court commissioner that the amount was unfair.

The young men sat in a Central Booking cell for days. And they have contacts, money and access to attorneys. Most defendants do not.

You can certainly argue that they deserved their punishment. They were in Maryland to participate in a regatta at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis — the two men are members of McGill's sailing team — and they came up to Baltimore to visit a friend at Hopkins.

Campus security caught the trio on video surveillance "damaging property and being disorderly," according to police charging documents. An off-duty city cop working security stopped them along West University Parkway. One of the men was wearing a pink wig.

The court papers say the officer and a campus security guard saw MacDonald "with a bent JHU Parking sign beneath his right arm." An American flag that had been removed from a library flag pole was on the ground near where Cruanes was standing. Police said they searched MacDonald and found the padlock to the flagpole.

They lawyer admits his clients participated in a prank.

But you also have to remember that none has been convicted. And while MacDonald had a padlock and a bent parking sign when cops approached, the police report says the other two had nothing in their hands.

Thompson noted that police cannot arrest someone on misdemeanor charges unless the offenses are committed in their presence, and he maintains that the arrests of Cruanes and Gladilen might be illegal. That can be sorted out later in discussions with prosecutors or at trial.

But Maryland's system leaves the defense attorney little choice but to save that argument for much later in the judicial process. And that means that people who aren't lucky enough to be able to afford bail for even minor charges can and do stay in jail for weeks and months before trial and before they can meet with an attorney.

"There are no standards, matrix or any guidelines to tell court commissioners what bail to set in cases," said Thompson a former prosecutor and now defense lawyer who also represents Big Boyz Bail Bonds, giving him a unique perspective on the industry. "We end up with arbitrary, capricious and bizarre results."

I tried to reach the court commissioner who set the $175,000 bail, identified in court documents as Eric Gooden. His boss, Administrative Commissioner Linda Lewis, said Gooden "would not be able to speak to that" and referred questions to Angelita Plemmer, a spokeswoman for Maryland's judiciary.

Plemmer also declined to comment, saying the case remains open. She said that once the case is closed, Ben C. Clyburn, the chief judge of the District Court, has the "prerogative to review any actions taken in this case." She would not say whether such a review is likely.

The issue of whether defendants should be entitled to defense attorneys when they appear in front of court commissioners shortly after being arrested has been debated for years, and some would say it was settled by the state's highest court in 2004.

Judges on the Court of Appeals ruled then that incriminating statements Donald A. Fenner made during his initial bail hearing with a court commissioner in Western Maryland could be used against him at trial, even though he did not have an attorney present, because they said the hearing was not a "critical stage" of pretrial proceedings

Six years later, University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert and his students led a new charge, and Circuit Judge Alfred A. Nance wrote an opinion earlier this month that sharply contrasts with the appeals court's ruling.

The judge noted that the hearing before a bail commissioner is the very point where defendants are "immersed in the intricacies of substantive and procedural criminal law" and that arrestees are "entitled to counsel" because a decision by commissioners "could result in a finding that would place the defendant in jeopardy of loss of liberty or being confined."

The Maryland attorney general's office is weighing an appeal, but because Nance's opinion is nonbinding, it's unclear whether it would ever have to be implemented. Still, it could begin the process for having this issue reviewed once again by the appeals courts.

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