What happens at a bond hearing?

Attorney Page Pate explains what happens at a bond hearing and how someone can be released from jail pending trial in a serious criminal case.




Most people probably know what a bond hearing is. It’s an opportunity for someone who’s been arrested and who’s being held in a jail to get out of jail while their case is pending. But unless you’ve been through the process yourself or you know someone who has, you probably don’t know what actually happens during a bond hearing. So let me try to explain.

Now, this process can be different, depending upon what you’re charged with and where you are. In federal court, there’s a very formal, specific process of how the initial appearance and the detention hearing works in a federal case, and it’s the same, pretty much, all across the country. In state court, for state charges, it can vary significantly from state to state, from county to county, all depending upon the local practice and what the judges in that particular jurisdiction like to do. But basically, the bond process follows a few simple steps.

The first step, after someone is arrested, is they’re going to see a magistrate judge, usually at the jail, or by video conference. And that usually takes place within the first 24 to 48 hours after someone has been arrested. Now, it’s not a trial, obviously, and it’s not the type of hearing you may see on TV or in the movies. The initial appearance, and sometimes it’s called a first appearance or a committal hearing, is just the judge, and it’s usually a magistrate judge, talking to the person who’s been arrested. They’re going to tell them what they’re charged with, they’re going to tell them they have basic constitutional rights, and they’re going to make sure that they understand that they can hire their own lawyer, and if they can’t afford one, they can apply for the public defender.

Now, in most cases, that magistrate judge, at that first appearance, can go ahead and set a bond amount, so the person who’s in jail can get that bond posted, and get out of jail while their case is pending. The judge is going to determine that amount of bond based on a few things. What is the person charged with? Because, you know, the judge is going to have some experience with setting a bond amount for a particular case, and usually that’s going to be consistent.

The second thing the judge is going to want to consider is does the person have a significant criminal history? Obviously, someone who’s been arrested for a lot of other things prior to this particular case may have a higher bond, or even no bond at all, compared to someone who has absolutely no criminal history at all. Usually, the bond will be set at that first appearance, the person can get it posted, either through friends, family member, or a bonding company, and then get out of jail. But in some serious cases, serious felony offenses, it can be a lot more difficult to get a bond. In some cases, especially here in Georgia and other states that have specific laws governing these serious crimes, that magistrate judge who sees the person at the jail for the first time, they don’t even have the authority to set a bond for certain crimes. And those are serious crimes like murder, rape, drug trafficking, child sex offences.

In those cases, while the magistrate’s still going to see that person at the jail, they’re going to tell him what they’re charged with, they’re going to explain their rights, they’re going to make sure they have a lawyer, but they cannot set a bond. In that case, for those types of charges, the person who’s in jail is going to have to get the help of a lawyer to set a full-blown bond hearing in front of a higher judge, a superior court judge, who then has the authority to set a bond. And that hearing can usually take place within about 10 days. Sometimes it takes longer. But that bond hearing is very different from the first appearance, because at that bond hearing, especially for these serious cases, you want to make sure you have witnesses available, people who can talk about your ties to the local community, the fact that you’re not going to, you know, try to take off and leave the country if you’re released on bond. People who can talk about the fact that, you know, you have a family to take care of, you have dependents, you have a job, you have stable employment over a lengthy period of time. You want to have people ready to testify in front of the judge, to convince that judge that you’re not a flight risk, and you’re not a danger to the community.

The state can also put on evidence. They can call the arresting officer, who can talk about the nature of the charges, what you’re accused of doing. They can call people who are considered victims in the case, who can oppose bond, saying, “Hey, I don’t want this guy out. He’s a danger to me. He’s a danger to the community.” The judge will consider all of that evidence and then make a determination. You of course can and should have a lawyer with you during that bond hearing, to present your evidence, and also to question the witnesses who may be called by the state.

In most cases, a judge is going to grant a bond, but if the person has a very serious charge, like murder, or the person has a lengthy criminal history, then the judge may deny bond. And while there are some ways, some exceptions, where you can appeal that denial of bond, it’s very difficult to get out of jail if you don’t win that first bond hearing. That’s why it is critical to make sure you understand the process, and to try to retain the best lawyer for you at the earliest possible opportunity.