Baltimore’s under-fire criminal justice system risked antagonising its already seething local community on Wednesday by suspending legal procedures and imposing bail bonds of up to half a million dollars on the city’s most impoverished residents.
In one especially stark case, a 19-year-old charged with eight offences allegedly committed on Saturday, including riot, theft and disorderly conduct, was set a bail of $500,000. Court records show the defendant, a black man, was sent to jail after failing to produce the funds.
Meanwhile, most of the 235 people arrested during riots and protests in the past week still have not been charged, after Maryland’s new Republican governor, Larry Hogan, effectively suspended the state’s habeas corpus law – which limits detention without charge to 24 hours – in a move he said was “necessary to protect the public safety”.
The tough treatment meted out to the more than 200 people arrested after unrest in the city was implemented by the governor as part of a state of emergency that also involved a 10pm to 5am curfew on Tuesday, enforced by 1,500 national guard troops.
The curfew, a response to sporadic rioting on Monday, will be repeated every night for the next week.
The visible display of military force succeeded in clearing Baltimore’s streets on Tuesday, but only after a tense standoff in the west side of the city, where protests have raged over the death in police custody earlier this month of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man.
Police in riot gear drove a crowd with teargas and smoke grenades, after hundreds of protesters defied the curfew, insisting on their right top demonstration over Gray’s death.
Many of those participating in protests and riots over the last 48 hours have complained that Gray’s death was symptomatic of the arbitrary, unjust and sometimes brutal treatment African Americans experience at the hands of police and courts in the city.
The febrile atmosphere in Baltimore echoes tension in cities across the US, where black communities are protesting police killings and other brutality.
As disorder broke in Baltimore on Tuesday, hundreds of activists gathered at the police headquarters in Chicago and dozens more congregated in Ferguson, Missouri, where the death of Michael Brown in August last year sparked the unprecedented Black Lives Matter protest movement. Shots were fired in the vicinity of the Ferguson protest with reports of at least one victim with gunshot wounds.
“We’ve got to listen to our children,” said Maryland congressman Elijah Cummings, venturing into the midst of Tuesday’s clashes Baltimore to persuade restraint from both police and protesters. “This is, without a doubt, the civil rights cause for this generation – this and voting rights. And America needs to wake-up – big time.”
Hillary Clinton, who is campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president, said the country had to “come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America” and called for criminal justice reform.
“There is something profoundly wrong when African American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts,” she said.
However, at the precise moment that Clinton was speaking in New York, Baltimore’s district courts were overcrowded with defendants being told to expect a highly punitive response for sometimes low-level offences.
Court records show that many others arrested during the civil unrest on Saturday had been charged and given bail amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. In one example a 21-year-old black woman was levied $150,000 related to five charges including reckless endangerment and throwing missiles at a vehicle. The fee was not met and she was sent to jail.
Mirriam Seddiq, a Baltimore attorney representing Shawn Carrié, a freelance photojournalist who was arrested after being struck in the head with a rubber bullet, said she was detained for “disorderly conduct” apparently after failing to disperse when police cleared protesters.
Seddiq said Carrié and other first-time offenders, including one minor, were being held unless they could pay an entire $10,000 bond in cash – practically unheard of in a city where defendants pay deposits upfront and use loans from bondsmen.
The attorney said three of Baltimore city’s district courts – which would ordinarily have shared the load of cases – were closed for no apparent reason. She reacted angrily to Hogan’s unilateral interference in detention-without-charge rules.
“The fact they have rescinded this rule, which was introduced specifically to protect citizens from being screwed over, is insane,” she said. “But it’s business as usual for Baltimore. The justice system in this city is broken. This situation to me is the story of how Baltimore works.”
The vast majority of arrests on Monday night had not been accompanied by police reports meaning no charges had been placed, further complicating the processing the hundreds of people detained. The backlog has been exacerbated by the unexplained closure of three of the city’s four district courts. By around midday Wednesday only 22 of those arrested on Monday had presented for bail hearings, a criminal attorney said.
The attorney said that the sheer volume of arrests had resulted in severe overcrowding at the Baltimore city detention center, where an entire floor had to be cleared to house those detained for rioting.
Several public defenders in the city said they planned to challenge Hogan’s decision to overrule habeas corpus law, which states that suspects will “in no event” be held for longer than 24 hours.
Hogan set out his decree in a letter to the city’s district court administrative judge Wednesday. “I am suspending the effect of Maryland rule 4-212(F), which requires individuals arrested, without warrants, to be taken before a judicial officers of the district court within 24 hours of arrest,” the governor said.
His decree effectively means arrestees are going 47 hours without charge, rather than the standard 24 hours. However, city officials and public defenders say the courts are expected to struggle to meet even the extended deadline. Some demonstrators say they intend to return to the streets to call for a prosecution of the six police officers suspended over Gray’s death.
Gray died in hospital on 19 April, a week after lapsing into a coma from injuries sustained during his arrest and transportation in a police van. He was chased for “catching the eye” of a lieutenant and running away. A knife was found in his pocket. His family said his spine was “80% severed” at the neck, and his voice box almost crushed.
Tuesday’s disturbances in Baltimore were far smaller in scale than Monday’s, when several buildings were set on fire and dozens of stores looted.
The peace was partly attributed to members of the notorious Bloods and Crips gangs, who are normally sworn enemies but teamed with community activists to help enforce the curfew.
“It ain’t about me being a Crip,” said Sin, 15, who wore lipstick and hair braids in the gang’s distinctive blue. “It’s about us coming together and making our community better.”
“We’re not helping police, we’re helping our people,” said War, a 23-year-old Blood wearing a red bandana, who linked arms with others in the line pushing protesters back. “I was a knucklehead in my time, but now I’m out here doing this for the community.”