We all know much about the first and second amendments in the Bill of Rights, and perhaps the fourth and/or fifth and/or tenth. But when was the last time you thought or heard about the Eighth Amendment? It states unambiguously: Excessive bail shall not be required….nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
These fundamental rights have been very much in play in Waco, Texas, which already holds a special and haunted place in modern American history. But recently, the city’s reputation has not only been further tarnished, but city officials have compounded the murderous violence of the recent biker gang war there by blatantly violating the constitutional rights of perhaps dozens of people innocently caught up in the slaughter.
After the shootout, police arrested 177 people. They claimed every single one was a member of a violent 1% outlaw gang, and thus charged them all with capital murder, then ordered up a one million dollar bail for every arrestee. This all happened within a few hours of the incident.
Now, think for a minute about the difficulty ordinarily associated with mustering a charge of capital murder – a death penalty offense. How much investigation and gathering of evidence would be necessary to secure such an indictment, not to mention a conviction? It took only hours in Waco.
The people arrested look like a motley bunch and are easily demonized, but they are still Americans who deserve the same protection against improper arrest and prosecution as the rest of us. Because, as we have learned over and over, when we ignore such unconstitutional precedents because they don’t apply to us personally, we invite ourselves to become future targets of such reckless and unconstitutional law enforcement.
It was just such promiscuous use of excessive bail by the British crown that led the framers of the Bill of Rights to include a prohibition on such in the list of fundamental rights enumerated in the first ten amendments to the constitution.
Imagine for a moment that you have a passionate interest in motorcycling and so you want to join an organization of like-minded bikers who lobby for their members’ interests and hold periodic meetings. That was the case in Waco – a meeting of the Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents. The group works to “protect our rights and freedoms at the State Capitol, we promote safety and awareness on our area streets and highways, we embrace charitable work year round improving the quality of life for those from our community in need as well as for other organizations.”
Some of those who attended the Twin Peaks restaurant meeting were indeed in motorcycle gangs. But while there are many groups of motorcyclists, relatively few bikers actually belong to gangs.
As with many things in life, however, perception becomes reality. In 1947, in response to a riot at a motorcycle event, an American Motorcyclist Association representative is reported to have said the “trouble was caused by the one per cent deviant that tarnishes the public image of both motorcycles and motorcyclists” and that “the other ninety-nine per cent of motorcyclists are good, decent, law-abiding citizens.” Those in the one-percent took to the label, proudly announcing on colorfulpatches who they are (a convenient sign to keep away).
The Justice of the Peace who set the bail – totalling now over $170 million – is not a lawyer, but aretired state trooper, elected by the county’s commissioners. You are forgiven if you think he may be a less than zealous defender of the rights of the accused. He has for certain violated every arrestee’s rights, saying. “We had nine people killed in our community. These people just came in, and most of them were from out of town. Very few of them were from in town….I think it is important to send a message.”
Send a message? Perhaps he is not aware that such is not the purpose of bail.
Simply put, this Justice of the Peace decided to punish the entire group of people present at the slaughter. Again, perhaps he is not aware that we don’t do group justice in our judicial system. People are arraigned, charged and tried as individuals. Our criminal justice system does not function like a classroom, where the teacher can put the whole class on detention for the actions of one or more irresponsible students.
Bail is designed simply to assure appearance at trial. It is the way we guarantee those arrested and charged with crimes will come back to face those charges at trial – nothing more, nothing less. A Justice of the Peace in charge of setting bail must certainly understand this. Rarely is such a breathtaking ignorance and a malicious provincialism announced to the world.
At least one seemingly innocent person has lost his job because of the excessive bail set by the JOP, and at least 115 of those arrested – 65% – have never been arrested before. The likelihood of maintaining membership in an outlaw motorcycle gang and never being even arrested is exceedingly low. Remember that breaking the law is what those men do – with relish. The assertion that all 177 people present at the shootout belong to biker gangs doesn’t even remotely pass the smell test.
Even those who wear the one percenter patches can’t be arrested merely for doing so. They are announcing something, but unless they admit to a specific crime, they must be left free. We must not allow fill-in-the-blank probable cause affidavits.
We should sympathize with those given the unenviable task of investigating the shootings – theirs is no easy task. But that is hardly a good excuse for tossing the Constitution out the window. Stressful times and emergencies are when we need our rights the most, for that is when they are most frequently ignored and/or violated. setting dangerous precedents for the future.
Many of the cases of individuals held in connection with the Waco shootout are now being adjudicated, and it is hard to calculate how enormous the cost will be to taxpayers who will ultimately foot the bill for the flood of lawsuits brought on by the reckless unconstitutional actions of city authorities.