DENVER — Michelle Reynolds was speeding; she was in a rush to get to her niece’s first volleyball game in Grand Junction two years ago and was excited to sit in the crowd.
That moment never came. Reynolds was pulled over on the way to the match by an officer for going too fast. She thought the process would be quick and that she would get a ticket and still make the game.
That’s when a second officer showed up and arrested Reynolds for a warrant out of another county she didn’t know existed.
Reynolds spent the next 15 days in jail waiting first to be transferred to Boulder County, and then to face a judge for a bond hearing.
“My first four days were horrific. I was physically assaulted and emotionally traumatized by another inmate,” she said. “For the next 11 days I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I had no information as to why I was arrested. No idea what was happening.”
When she finally was able to get in front a judge, Reynolds was given a personal recognizance, or signature, bond. Two weeks later, the entire case was dismissed.
Reynolds works as a home hospice nurse and says the experience has changed her life and made it difficult to return to work. She’s now suing the counties and the judge involved over that experience.
Democratic state lawmakers like Rep. Steven Woodrow, D-Denver, are trying to change that by proposing a bill to change the bail bond system.
House Bill 1280 would require counties to hold bond hearings within 48 hours of someone’s arrest and arrival at jail. The bill also allows bail to be paid in cash, by money order, cashier’s check or even online, and says the defendant must be released within six hours of posting bond.
“This bill is all about due process. Right now, Colorado is still a state where, unfortunately, if you find yourself arrested on a Friday afternoon, you might not see a judge or a bond hearing officer until Monday or Tuesday,” said Woodrow.
Currently, only three counties in Colorado offer weekend bond hearings: Denver, Jefferson and Weld counties.
Woodrow says that if people are being arrested 24/7, the court system shouldn’t work a Monday through Friday schedule. He says staying in jail for prolonged amounts of time can affect all aspects of a person’s life.
“Inability to get out in time jeopardizes your employment prospects, which jeopardizes your health care, which jeopardizes your housing situation. So, you have these compounding negative effects that we’re trying to address,” he said.
The bill follows one passed in 2019 that created other bond reforms for the state. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union support it and say the pandemic has proven how courts can leverage technology for hearings.
“This pandemic has, I think, shown us that we can do things by video. I think more courts and maybe more sheriffs are equipped to set something up so that there can be electronic communication necessary to get this done promptly,” said Mark Silverstein, the legal director of the ACU of Colorado.
More importantly, Silverstein believes this is a matter of constitutionality, saying two weeks is much too long to leave someone in jail without a bond hearing.
During the bill’s first committee hearing Wednesday, witnesses told more stories of long detentions.
Joel Northam, an organizer with Party for Socialism and Liberation who was arrested last September after racial justice protests, had a similar experience to Reynolds.
“I was suddenly arrested on a warrant I didn’t know existed. I was been taken to Denver County Jail and it wasn’t until eight days later that I was finally brought before a judge and released on a personal recognizance bond,” said Northam.
Northam’s arrest happened during COVID; he worried about exposure with prisoners constantly moving in and out of his pod.
“Eight days is a long time in jail. I didn’t know if it was going to be longer because there was never any explanation of why I wasn’t being released and whether there was a limit at all on how long they can hold me,” he said.
Northam saw multiple charges related to that arrest dismissed Thursday by the 17th Judicial District Attorney's Office.
The ACLU says Reynolds and Northam are not alone and that it has represented clients who have spent much longer in jail before being able to see a judge.
The most notable case is Michael Bailey, who spent 52 days in jail waiting to appear in court. There was a lawsuit over that case as well, which was eventually settled.
District attorneys also testified at Wednesday’s hearing. Christian Champagne, the DA for the 6th Judicial District, which represents La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan counties, says he agrees with the policy as a whole but has issues with the bill in its current form.
“The issue that we’ve got, especially in smaller and more rural jurisdictions, is that there are costs associated with that,” Champagne said.
His office employs 11 full-time attorneys and Champagne says the normal weekly workload from weekend arrests is between eight and 10 defendants. He estimates that staffing the office over the weekend with lawyers, victims’ witnesses, legal assistants and more would result in $250,000-$300,000 in additional expenses each year.
That doesn’t include the court staff, sheriff’s office personnel and defense attorneys that would need to be on hand as well, he said.
In an effort to address the challenges smaller counties face, the bill calls for the creation of a bond hearing officer who would work through the state.
“That state bond officer will be sort of a shared resource so the smaller, more rural counties can pool their money for their weekend bond hearings,” Woodrow said.
He believes the bill could save counties money on incarceration in the long run and that a statewide bond officer might bring more uniformity to the process.
Champagne is not thrilled with the idea. He worries that a statewide officer won’t have a personal connection with the community they’re representing and says speaking to a judge remotely can also depersonalize the case.
“While we appreciate that the bond officer has the authority to set the bond in the case, the experience is not quite the same both for the victim and for the defendant. So, missing the chance to speak directly to the judge is a real loss, in our opinion,” he said.
Beyond that, Champagne also worries about the rural areas of the state where the internet connection is not as strong.
He pointed to Wednesday’s committee hearing, which experienced several technological challenges of its own, with lost audio and connections as an example of how things can go wrong.
“We’re talking about something that’s really important like a bond setting. That really endangers the process,” he said.
Champagne says he would prefer to see local judges handle the weekend and holiday bond hearings with more funding from the state.
The current version of the bill allocates roughly $577,000 in general fund money to implement the program, however the money does not go to counties.
House Bill 1280 passed its committee hearing Wednesday and will continue through the legislative process.