Without explanation, Jacksonville judge sought jail time, required bail for protesters

Duval County Judge Michael Bateh denied release without bail to 50 out of 51 protesters who appeared before him on June 1. The newly released transcript of the hearing shows how he handled cases like an assembly line with little variation based on circumstances.

Eric Battle, arrested on an unlawful assembly charge, said he had an autoimmune disease and he worried another night in jail could kill him. His request for release without bond was denied.

Gerod Ferguson said he needed to get back home to care for his brother with special needs. His request for release without bond was denied.

Darlene Marshall said her job as a restaurant manager allowed her to take care of her diabetic brother, her daughter and mother. The money needed for everyday expenses would go toward paying bond. Her request for release without bond was denied.

After the first weekend of protests three weeks ago in Jacksonville following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, Duval County Judge Michael Bateh heard the pleas of 51 people arrested during those May 31 protests. None were accused of violence. Yet Bateh only released one without bail.

The protesters, who waited hours to get booked into jail, weren’t allowed to pay a pre-determined bond for release that Sunday evening due to the city’s curfew. Most would have faced a $753 bond if they’d paid according to the bond schedule. Instead, for some of the protesters, Bateh doubled or tripled that amount without citing any reason.

The bonds came despite state law calling for a presumption of non-monetary release before trial, and it came despite efforts by police, prosecutors and public defenders to lower the jail population amid the coronavirus pandemic.

They also came in the wake of the Jacksonville police union threatening to “expose” judges who make decisions, like low bonds, it disagrees with.

The day before Bateh’s hearings, Duval County Judge Gary Wilkinson handled first-appearance court and offered similar bond amounts. Wilkinson heard about two dozen protesters’ cases, while Bateh, on June 1, heard 51.

The Florida Times-Union filed a public records request for the transcripts of bond hearings on May 31 and June 1. So far, it has received the transcript for June 1.

That transcript reveals how the first-appearance court operated with an assembly-line precision.

Judge Bateh — not the prosecutors — offered nearly every defendant, regardless of their circumstances, the same deal: five days in jail and a guilty conviction, or they could try to scrounge up enough money to pay their bond for misdemeanor unlawful assembly charges.

And when defendant after defendant turned down the deal but asked to be released without bail, all but one were denied.

One person’s bond was kept at $753. Twenty-two were given bonds of $1,003. Fourteen more were given bonds of $1,503. Eleven more were given bonds of $2,006.

One person, who was charged with inciting a riot, was given a bond of $36,506. Police had said in an arrest report, they heard him say “fight the police,” “f— the police” and “attack the police,” though his arrest report didn’t allege that there was any violence.

Another, whose case would soon be transferred to federal court, was accused of making a Molotov cocktail, and he was given a $53,009 bond.

Out of 51 people who passed before Judge Bateh that first weekend, only one, whose attorney said she was a pastor arrested after praying for police officers and urging people to remain peaceful, was released without bail.

While the protests on Saturday, May 30, had a brief flash of violence after most of the protests had died down — the police said an officer’s neck was slashed, windows of some downtown buildings were broken and a police car was set on fire — the protests on the following day remained peaceful. Still, police issued nearly identical arrest reports to dozens of peaceful protesters alleging they failed to disperse after a public-announcement system told them to. In some cases, the failure to disperse allegedly happened hours after the announcement, yet officers charged dozens with unlawful assembly, resisting without violence or a combination of the two.

None of the Sunday arrest reports accused any of the defendants of violence. Less than two weeks later, the state ended up dropping the charges for every defendant facing unlawful assembly or resisting an officer without violence, except for two who accepted Bateh’s plea offer.

In an interview with News4Jax, Sheriff Mike Williams defended the arrests, saying that “it’s not the fact that we made arrests that were illegal. That’s not the case. But there’s a different threshold for her [Nelson] to have to prosecute those cases then there is for us to make the arrest in the street.”

With the exception of the pastor, Bateh denied defendants’ pleas to be released without paying money — in legal terms, this is called being released on their own recognizance or ROR.

“It’s troubling to me that citizens that were arrested for exercising their First Amendment right to protest, irrespective of whether there was probable cause for arrest, but on the basis of what they were doing, with no criminal history, and no allegations of violent behavior to anyone including police, would have their bonds increased from the bond schedule,” said defense attorney Matt Kachergus. “I think every one of these unlawful assemblies with no extenuating circumstances should’ve gotten an ROR, particularly during the COVID crisis.”

Judge Bateh did not return requests for comment, and neither did State Attorney Melissa Nelson.

Public Defender Charlie Cofer, who Bateh worked for until he was elected to the bench in 2018, said he was disappointed with the outcome.

“I was really proud of the arguments my attorneys made,” he said. “But unfortunately, those arguments were not successful.”

The June 1 hearing was closed to the public due, the court said at the time, to technical difficulties. A Times-Union reporter and at least one member of the public complained about not being able to view the hearings.

Defense attorneys said that those arrested on Sunday weren’t processed until after curfew, regardless of when they were arrested, and then told they couldn’t pay the bond-schedule amount to get released that night. According to the bond schedule, unlawful assembly charges result in a $753 bond. At the next morning’s bond hearing, the bond amount increased for nearly every defendant.

Bateh offered five days jail time to every protester, except for two who were offered seven-day plea deals despite both having one unlawful-assembly charge, the same as most arrested.

Under the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, a judge can only require a bond if he or she believes it is necessary to “reasonably protect the community from risk of physical harm to persons, assure the presence of the accused at trial, or assure the integrity of the judicial process.”

The judge is supposed to consider a number of factors if setting a bond, none of which were asked by Bateh, including: the nature of the offense, the potential penalty for the offense, the weight of the evidence, the defendant’s family ties, the defendant’s length of time in Jacksonville, the defendant’s employment history, the defendant’s financial resources and the defendant’s past conduct.

While Bateh didn’t ask questions about those issues, Assistant Public Defender Liza Hall and the defendants themselves repeatedly drew the judge’s attention to protesters’ personal details.

Battle had an autoimmune disease. “I’m very frightened this — dying, you know what I’m saying?” the man told Bateh. Bateh denied his request for release without bail.

Marshall told Bateh she took care of her diabetic brother, her daughter, her mother and a sister. She said she was a manager at a restaurant. “I believe releasing her on her own recognizance is especially appropriate,” Hall said, “when there’s so many other people she’s trying to care for and a bond for participating in a peaceful protest should not be what her money is going for. She is a non-violent person who was at a peaceful protest.”

Bateh denied the request, though he set her bond to $1,003, lower than his initial offer of $1,503.

Gerod Ferguson talked about how he takes care of a brother with special needs. “I’m really trying to bond out today but I don’t have no way – nobody to get the money. I got the money at the house. I don’t have nobody to get it for me or none of that.”

The assistant public defender pointed out Ferguson’s and other arrest reports were essentially copied and pasted, without descriptions of how the specific charges applied to individual defendants.

“There are no specific allegations. This is merely conclusory language, I would ask – and additionally, with COVID-19 posing a great health risk to everyone in jail right now, I would ask that Mr. Ferguson be released,” she said in Ferguson’s case.

Bateh didn’t budge, setting a $2,006 bond and offering a plea deal for five days in jail. Ferguson asked what would happen if he didn’t bond out and didn’t accept the plea deal.

“And if I don’t bond out, what, I’m released in five days?” he asked.

“No, Mr. Ferguson,” Bateh said. “You’ve elected to bond out and not accept the five-day offer so your next court date would be July 28th. Do you understand that?”

“Yes,” Ferguson said. “Just give me five days.”

Because Ferguson took the plea deal, he didn’t benefit when the State Attorney’s Office announced it was dropping charges in 48 cases. Ferguson must still pay hundreds of dollars in court fines and fees due to the plea deal, and he now has a misdemeanor conviction on his record. If he had been able to pay the bond and his case had been dropped, he would’ve gotten the bond money back.

Ferguson was one of two people who pleaded no contest that day and were found guilty by Bateh.

The county prosecutor remained mostly silent throughout the hearing, except when she made the point that all of the plea offers were being made by the judge, not by prosecutors. She explicitly said she didn’t oppose releasing two people without cash bail, but she didn’t weigh in on other cases.

It’s not clear why Bateh set bonds. Throughout the transcript, he never offered a rationale.

But in April, the police union went after another county judge, Eleni Derke, for setting what the union said were too-low bonds in the case of a man accused of ramming into a police car. She set a $16,000 bond for the man, and the police union called for attorneys to run against her, and at least one police officer left a comment that appeared threatening. “Wonder who’s gonna 31 her house next time she gets a ‘mean’ email…” wrote Officer Carlos Sosa, apparently referring to a Signal 31 premises check.

“If you are a judge in Duval County and you have a weak stomach when it comes to bonds for dirtbags who attack our officers maybe you should find a new line of work,” Fraternal Order of Police 5-30 President Steve Zona wrote on Twitter in April.

Days later, the union said it would continue going after judges it disagreed with. “The Fraternal Order of Police is nowhere near being done exposing decisions like those made by Judge Derke and we are confident the hard working members of our community will continue to be shocked by what is revealed.”

Just two nights before Bateh’s hearing, Zona took to Facebook again to denounce efforts by a community activist to raise money to help protesters afford bail, tagging TV news stations and asking them to report on this. He also called on protesters to denounce efforts to fundraise bail money.

Zona declined to answer a Times-Union reporter’s questions about the June 1 hearing, saying, “Your credibility on this issue is zero in my book. I have nothing to say to you.”

*story by Florida Times-Union