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First Appearances: Lasting Decisions

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A person arrested on a crime is entitled to a hearing within 24 hours to determine whether, and under what conditions, he or she can be released from jail while waiting for trial.  This hearing is called First Appearance.  In Palm Beach County, First Appearances are held in the morning at the Palm Beach County Jail.  They are usually short hearings.  But they are one of the most important and impactful steps in a criminal case.

Balancing Many Factors, Many Conditions

The court’s main goal at a First Appearance hearing is setting conditions to ensure that the defendant will (i) show up for all court proceedings, and (ii) not commit any new crimes while waiting for trial.  Under the Florida Statutes and Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, the First Appearance judge may consider a number of factors, including: the nature of the charge and potential penalty; the weight of the evidence;

the length of the defendant’s residence in the community; his or her employment history; past criminal convictions or failures to appear for court; the danger that the defendant poses to the community; whether the defendant is already on pretrial release or probation; and “any other facts the court considers relevant.”

The court generally has three main categories of pretrial release conditions to choose from: money bond, which usually requires the defendant to pay a bail bondsman a non-refundable 10% premium in order to post a surety bond; “supervised release,” which requires the defendant to report to the Palm Beach County Pretrial Services Program periodically while the case is pending; and “special conditions,” which can include a number of things that the judge feels is appropriate under the circumstances, from not drinking alcohol to receiving counseling to wearing an ankle bracelet.

The First Appearance hearing is not a mini-trial.  The judge will assume that the facts listed in the police officer’s arrest report are true.  So it is usually not the time for the defense to put on detailed evidence that the defendant is innocent of the charge.  But a good defense attorney may wish to call witnesses to testify at the hearing about such things as the defendant’s background, ties to the community, and employment and family situation, all of which can convince the judge to impose less harsh conditions of release.  Once the First Appearance judge sets conditions of release, it is difficult to have those conditions changed.  So it is important to make the best possible presentation at First Appearance.

No Bond

There are two main circumstances when the prosecutor may ask the First Appearance judge to keep the defendant in jail until trial — what is called a “no bond hold.”  The first is when the defendant is arrested on a charge that is punishable by death or by life in prison, and the State is able to establish that “the proof is evident and the presumption is great,” which is a term that requires even more evidence than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  The court holds what is called an “Arthur Hearing” and decides whether the evidence is strong enough to hold the defendant without bond.

A second situation where the prosecutor may ask for a no bond hold is a motion for pretrial detention.  The prosecutor may file the motion when the defendant is charged with one of 23 listed “dangerous crimes.”  The court will then detain the defendant without bond if it finds a substantial probability that no conditions of release are likely to assure the defendant’s appearance in court or sufficiently protect the community from the risk of physical harm.

High Stakes

There are many things that the First Appearance judge must consider, and can require, in setting the conditions of pretrial release.  A bad decision at First Appearance, such as an extremely high bond amount, can result in the defendant sitting in jail for months while waiting for trial.  The stakes are even higher when the prosecutor is seeking a no bond hold.  In short, the defendant’s freedom is on the line at a First Appearance hearing.  So it is critical that the defendant have a good and experienced attorney representing him or her interests.

Call the experienced lawyers at Perlet & Shiner, P.A. to get the best results in court for you.

Written by:

Nancy Vorpe Quinlan, Esquire

Of Counsel

Perlet & Shiner, P.A.

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