Top judge says most criminal defendants should be free before trial

Judge defends policy of magistrate’s office to free those accused of violent felonies

Top judge says most criminal defendants should be free before trial
Chief District Court Judge Regan Miller during an interview with WBTV.

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A top Mecklenburg County judge is defending the recent practice of the county’s magistrates of letting criminal defendants charged with felony crimes free while awaiting trial by issuing a summons instead of sending them to jail and giving them bond.

The practice has come under scrutiny by local attorneys and a watchdog group that monitors court activities.

In an interview with WBTV this week, Chief District Court Judge Regan Miller said the magistrate’s office of issuing summons for most felony defendants instead of orders for arrest was consistent with the law.

“A person charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty,” Miller said.

But Miller said he even supported the use of a summons--which amounts to a sheet of paper ordering a defendant to appear in court on a certain date--for suspects who have been charged with violent crimes.

“The violent nature of the charge is one factor that a magistrate should consider,” Miller said. “But just the simple fact that it’s a violent charge against the person shouldn’t necessarily determine whether or not the person needs to be arrested.”

Miller is referring to the set of criteria outlined in the relevant state law that determines whether a magistrate should issue a summons or an arrest warrant.

The criteria are as follows:

a. The accused has a history of failure to appear before the court as required, or there is other evidence that the person is unlikely to appear in response to a summons for the current proceeding.

b. There is evidence that the accused is likely to escape or otherwise flee the State in order to avoid prosecution for the offense alleged.

c. There is evidence of imminent danger of harm to persons or property if the accused is not taken into custody.

d. The location of the accused is not readily discoverable, such that a criminal summons would be unlikely to be served before any court date assigned at the time of issue.

e. A relevant statute provides that arrest is mandatory for an offense charged.

f. The seriousness of the offense. However, the fact that the offense charged is a felony shall not, by itself, constitute grounds for the issuance of a warrant.

The practice of using summons to address many felony crimes is something CharMeck Court Watch has questioned for months.

“We are extremely concerned because we feel like it creatse a public safety issue and it also violates some victims' rights,” Marcus Philemon, with Court Watch, said.

Philemon sent a letter to Miller in early October complaining about the matter. He said he hasn’t received a response.

“I’m not so sure they care about our organization creating transparency,” Philemon said. “But we do this, basically, for public safety benefit. We have a right to walk around and be safe and feel safe just as much as the offenders have a right to due process.”

Miller, Mecklenburg County’s Chief District Court Judge, said magistrates use their discretion when determining whether to issue a summons or send someone to jail.

“They are trying to make the best determination, which protects the public as well as it gets the person to respond to the criminal charges,” Miller said.

“What would you say to the people who see themselves as victims in these situations, who may be uncomfortable with the person they just called the police on being released on a written promise to appear?” a reporter asked.

“Well, our system isn’t designed to punish people before they’re convicted,” Miller said. “The system is designed to punish people after conviction.”

Philemon, the court watchdog, said the increased use of summons for violent felony charges could mean more danger to the public.

“Your mother, your daughter, your family: everybody is as risk with the low bond/no bond criminal summons type situation,” he said.

WBTV asked Miller what his message was to those people who feel unsafe.

“Well, I don’t have a message for those people,” he said. “I’m just trying to implement the law as it’s written.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included charges filed against Lonnie Brant in February 2018. Although Brant was charged with a violent felony via summons, he was arrested on other, related misdemeanor charges, was given bond and an ankle monitor.

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