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HumCo Grand Jury: End Late Night Jail Releases

This year’s Humboldt County Grand Jury Report calls for an end to after-hours releases from the county’s jail facility between 9pm and 6am and finds that not returning indigent offenders to the locations where they were arrested is a violation of the law.

As noted in the report, which was released last week, three deaths related to late night/early morning releases have occurred this year. The most shocking incident occurred on New Year’s Day, when Redway area resident Gary Bullock allegedly broke into the rectory of St. Bernard’s Church in Eureka and brutally murdered Pastor Eric Freed.

Bullock (with Bailiff) and Father Freed
Bullock (with Bailiff) and Father Freed

Bullock was brought to the Humboldt County jail from Southern Humboldt after behaving strangely and showing signs of intoxication. After being held several hours, he appeared sober and was released at 12:45am.

The subsequent murder focused attention on the late night release issue, leading to a well-attended forum on it last February. Officials from the Sheriff’s Office have said that extending jail stays to avoid late night releases runs the risk of violating civil rights.

The Grand Jury’s report states that the Sheriff’s Office can use discretion in holding people arrested for intoxication “in a situation where the safety of the community is at issue.” The report recommends declaring after-hours releases as a risk to the community.

“We believe that it is unlikely that any person lawfully arrested could make a successful claim against the county because he or she was held until the morning following the arrest because the sheriff has concluded that release between the hours of 9pm and 6am constitutes an avoidable hazard,” the report states.

The report also states that California Penal Code Section 686.5 “mandates that for an indigent person who is arrested ‘more than 25 airline miles’ from where he or she is released from custody and who will not be charged, ‘the arresting agency shall, at his request, return or provide for return of such person to the place of his arrest’.”

A recommendation to contract with the Humboldt Transit Authority “to provide tickets for out of town inmates at the time of release to return them to the place they were arrested” is included in the Grand Jury’s report.

The report also finds that those released from jail should be given any cash that they had when they were booked, instead of reimbursements via check or debit card.

Commenting on the findings and recommendations, Sheriff Mike Downey said he – and other sheriffs – are paying attention to constitutional rights when they set jail release policies.

“There is no ability of any sheriff in California to hold someone in violation of their constitutional rights,” he said. “There are some real issues that preclude me from being able to arbitrarily hold someone because it’s two (o’clock) in the morning.”

The Sheriff’s Office has already made some changes to jail release procedures. Although people have always had the option of waiting in the jail’s lobby until morning, now they fill out a form that “clearly spells out the conditions of their release,” Downey said.

The release form includes content that “demonstrates that person has reached sobriety” and asks whether they want to use the lobby as a waiting area, he continued.

Regarding transport back to arrest locations, Downey said he’s conferring with county counsel on the issue. The report’s conclusion that state law appears to have been violated is “the Grand Jury’s interpretation,” he continued, but “we haven’t made a determination on that at this time.”

He said the practices of other counties are being looked into along with their interpretations of the penal code section.

If it’s determined that the county is indeed obliged to transport indigent people back to their original locations, “It will have some impact but not as overwhelming or wide-sweeping an impact as some may think,” said Downey.

He also said that for several months, the Sheriff’s Office has followed a new cash return policy. Any money someone booked for intoxication possesses is counted in front of them, sealed and then returned upon release.

The policy is only relevant to cases of intoxication, as those who are actually held in jail and not sobering cells are released during daytime hours. The Grand Jury recommends that cash be returned to all inmates.

Formal responses to the report will be filed later this year.

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