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Is $1 Million an Unreasonably High Bail for a Texas Murder Charge?

If you are charged with a serious felony in Texas, a qualified Houston criminal defense attorney can represent you in seeking bail. Bail is an amount of money that a defendant must post in order to secure their release from jail pending trial. A defendant who cannot make bail may spend months–even years–in jail, even though they have yet to be convicted of any crime.

In some cases, a court will release a defendant on “personal recognizance.” This is essentially a bond where no cash is required. More commonly, a defendant charged with a violent crime will have to post some amount of cash bail. If they cannot pay the entire amount upfront, they can instead secure a bail bond, which only requires paying 10 to 20 percent as a premium.

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure both guarantee a criminal defendant’s right to “reasonable” bail. What is considered reasonable, however, depends on a number of factors. Keep in mind, the purpose of bail is not to punish a defendant for being poor. Rather, it is to guarantee their appearance at all necessary court hearings.

The Factors in Determining “Reasonable” Bail

For example, a Texas appeals court recently reversed a trial judge’s decision to set bail in the amount of $1 million for a defendant charged with murder. This case, Chavez v. State, involves a defendant accused of shooting a man in front of a store following a series of alleged “confrontations” between the two men.

According to an affidavit filed in connection with the defendant’s arrest, the defendant got into a fight with the victim and two of his brothers earlier that same day. Later, the brothers discovered someone had fired bullets at their house. That led to a second and final confrontation with the defendant outside the store. The defendant allegedly shot the victim multiple times, killing him. A grand jury subsequently indicted the defendant for murder.

In reviewing the trial judge’s decision to set the defendant’s bail at $1 million, the Court of Appeals pointed to several statutory guidelines in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. These guidelines include:

  • Bail should not be used as an “instrument of oppression.”
  • The trial court must consider the nature of the offense and the circumstances under which that offense was committed, including whether it was a crime involving violence.
  • The trial court must consider the defendant’s ability to actually make bail and consider any evidence submitted on this issue.
  • The trial court must take into account the future safety of the alleged victim, law enforcement, and the community at-large.
  • The trial court must consider the defendant’s prior criminal history, including any past acts of violence or other pending criminal charges.
  • The trial court must consider the defendant’s ties to the community.
  • The trial court must consider the defendant’s U.S. citizenship status.

The Court of Appeals noted that some of these factors weighed in favor of high bail. Obviously, the nature of the offense–an alleged violent murder committed in public–was a serious charge that weighed in favor of high bail. But for many factors, the appellate court said the evidence was insufficient to justify a $1 million bail.

For example, while releasing an accused murder from custody pending trial “creates a generalized safety concern,” the state failed to identify any specific threat to the public that was served by requiring $1 million bail. Along similar lines, the defendant did not have an extensive criminal history suggesting he posed a potential ongoing threat to the public.

But perhaps the most important consideration identified by the Court of Appeals was the defendant’s financial inability to furnish $1 million in bail. Before the trial court, the defendant’s mother testified that their family’s available financial resources was only about $8,000. This was not even enough to secure a bail bond, which required a premium of at least $100,000. And the defendant owned no property or assets of his own. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals directed the trial court to conduct a new bail hearing and set a more reasonable amount.

Contact a Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

Many people facing criminal charges for the first time think they only need a lawyer to defend them at trial. But it is just as essential to have an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney by your side when seeking bail and pretrial release. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you need to speak with a lawyer right away.