As the state continues to reel from a domestic violence homicide this summer, legislators may turn to strengthening bail laws to keep repeat abusers in jail until they go to trial.
Evert Fowle, district attorney for Somerset and Kennebec counties, has submitted proposed legislation to the Criminal Law Advisory Commission that would decrease the likelihood that abusers out on bail would contact or again harm their victims. It would also lessen the authority of bail commissioners and give more bail decision-making power to judges.
“Any time there’s a tragedy of this proportion it’s a good time to take stock of our existing laws and see whether improvements can be made,” Fowle said, referring to the shooting deaths in Dexter in June of Amy Bagley Lake and her two children, Coty and Monica, by her estranged husband, Steven, who then killed himself.
“I think prosecutors should be encouraged to utilize motions to revoke bail when domestic violence offenders violate bail,” he said. “If somebody can violate bail with impunity, that sends a terrible message.”
Under Fowle’s proposed legislation, a person who is arrested on a domestic violence charge but then bails out and violates the bail conditions by contacting or abusing the victim again, would face a judge. That judge would have to show in writing the reasons for the person’s next bail amount.
“If you violate bail and the state proves it in a motion hearing, the judge has to be pretty darn confident that you’re not a threat before you’re released,” Fowle said.
If the accused then violates bail a second time by contacting or abusing the victim, the person would be put in jail and not allowed bail. The accused would remain in jail until a trial.
“Enough is enough. You sit in jail until your trial,” Fowle said. And, “The focus should be on making your trial prompt.”
It’s unknown whether Steven Lake would have been in custody and unable to have killed his family if the proposed law had been in place, but there’s a greater chance he would have been jail.
At the time of the homicides, Lake was facing charges of criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and domestic violence criminal threatening, in addition to charges he had violated his bail conditions and a protective order by contacting Amy Lake.
If Fowle’s proposed law had been in place, it’s possible a judge would have ordered Steven Lake held without bail or made it more difficult for him to bail after the first bail violation.
Also, a recent report by four former and current police officers with no connection to the case disclosed that Steven Lake had supposedly contacted Amy Lake several times, but it was not reported. If the contacts had been reported to police, and the proposed law had been in place, Steven Lake would have been in jail at the time of the homicides.
John Morris, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said the department and Gov. Paul LePage are “absolutely supporting anything we can do to improve the elimination of domestic violence.”
The governor’s office is also proposing language for the potential bill that would prevent people who are charged with aggravated assault, sexual assault, strangulation or violating a protective order from getting out of jail on bail until they go before a judge. That means a bail commissioner would not be able to bail them out right away.
The Criminal Law Advisory Commission, which has the ability to recommend changes to Maine’s criminal statutes, will discuss the proposed legislation on Friday.
If the law passes, there would be more paperwork and hearings before judges, Fowle acknowledged.
“I think it will be some burden,” he said. But, “What should be wrong with having a bail system with integrity and teeth behind it?”
Walter McKee, a past president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and chairman the association’s legislative committee, said it is unreasonable to treat people charged with domestic violence crimes differently than those charged with other crimes.
“We all recognize that domestic violence cases are serious, but creating an entirely different set of rules for one class of cases does not make sense,” McKee said. “This isn’t done in any other kind of case, be it severe operating under the influence cases, burglary cases, you name it.”
William Bly, a criminal defense attorney in Biddeford, said he is concerned about the proposal for a number of reasons.
“Defendants have rights, too,” he said. “Potentially you’re holding people who are presumed to be innocent without bail. I think it’s wrong.”
Prosecutors can already file motions to revoke offenders’ bail, which then triggers a hearing before a judge, Bly said. If accused offenders are automatically placed in jail without the ability to have a hearing, it’s a “major violation of everybody’s constitutional rights,” he said.
Bly also questioned whether having judges making more bail decisions could result in political backlash, as judges may be less likely to be re-appointed if they let more accused offenders out on bail. That might cause judges to think more about re-appointment than the proper thing to do under the law, Bly said.
The Dexter homicide was an “absolute tragedy,” Bly said, but the proposed legislation is “highly reactionary. And in this country when we make law based on reaction, we make bad law.”
Erin Rhoda — 612-2368