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Jacksonville judge raised bail for peaceful protesters without explanation. State Attorney dropped the charges

The head of the Public Defenders office said this speaks to broader bail reform that needs to happen in Jacksonville.
The head of the Public Defenders office said this speaks to broader bail reform that needs to happen in Jacksonville.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Peaceful demonstrators protesting police brutality were offered jail time or bail many said they couldn’t afford only to have their charges dropped weeks later, records show.

A News4Jax I-TEAM investigation revealed bail for dozens of protesters was raised. Now court transcripts, first obtained by the Florida Times-Union, show Florida judge Michael Bateh set higher bonds with no explanation.

Most protesters were arrested on unlawful assembly charges. Their incident report largely read the same way.

“After the protest, due to concerns of public safety, at 13:45, announcements were made for all individuals to disperse the area,” stated the incident report. “The suspect failed to disperse from the area as ordered.”

That night, bails were set at a pre-determined bond amount: $753. Pre-determined bail is set for many misdemeanor offenses. But, the night of the arrests the city was under curfew and many bail companies had closed their doors to comply.

The next morning, 51 protesters came before Judge Bateh for their first appearance. Without explanation, or asking questions about the protester’s jobs or family responsibilities, Bateh offered protesters multiple days in jail or to plead not guilty and pay double the pre-determined bail amount.

One of the protesters who came before Judge Bateh was Gerod Ferguson. He told the judge he was responsible for his special needs brother and didn’t have family in Jacksonville to help with his brothers care. He also told the judge he didn’t have access to the money to get out. Judge Bateh didn’t budge on the $1,503 bail amount.

Incident reports show Ferguson and a large group of protesters were arrested blocks away from the courthouse where officers ordered protesters to leave.

The same day, Public Defender Elizabeth Hall told Judge Bateh that protester Eric Battle was unemployed and susceptible to COVID-19 because of his autoimmune disease.

The judge waited to set bail until after Battle was checked out, but court records show while Battle’s bail was not doubled, it was increased from the pre-determined amount to $1,003. According to his incident report, he was arrested for failing to leave the protest.

Defense attorney representing protesters, including Public Defender Charlie Cofer, say the order for protesters to leave was unlawful.

“When the formal protest, the organized protest had ended, people still wanted to protest and a determination was made by someone with the Sheriff’s Office that the protest was over so everybody had to leave,” said Public Defender Charlie Cofer. “And so, they start arresting people who didn’t want to leave or who were not leaving fast enough.”

“Once the people who are leading the protest say ok we’re done. It doesn’t mean that people can’t still lawfully assemble and protest and so – my concern is what was it about those circumstances that promoted the decision that they were no longer allowed to peacefully protest,” said Cofer.

Cofer said he and a group of attorneys raised that concern with State Attorney Melissa Nelson in a phone conversation.

Nelson eventually decided against charging 48 of the protesters who were charged with unlawful assembly after watching JSO drone footage, body camera footage and video taken by bystanders and protesters.

In an interview with The Morning Show, Sheriff Mike Williams pushed back against criticism that arrests made by his officers were unlawful.

“As we began to talk about this early in the week and some of the challenges maybe with documentation on our end, that we’re working on fixing in these types of scenarios, that’s where you get that,” said Williams on The Morning Show. “So, 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 to have to prosecute those cases than there is for us to make the arrest in the street.”

The charges were dropped more than a week after the first appearance where Judge Bateh offered virtually everyone the same deal: jail time or double the bail.

One protester, Domenic Murphy, whose incident report read the same way as dozens of others who had their charges dropped by the State Attorney’s office, had already plead no contest to the charges and accepted jail the time offered by Judge Bateh on June 1.

Judge Bateh released one woman on her own recognizance, a pastor who public defenders told the judge was praying over demonstrators and was trying to get people to leave the protest when she was arrested.

There were at least two people who were arrested for more than unlawful assembly and resisting police without violence, both are still facing charges and had their bonds set thousands of dollars higher than protesters who ended up having their charges dropped.

Ivan Zecher, 27, is still facing charges for allegedly throwing items at police officers and passing cars and for carrying a liquor bottle with gasoline, a wick, a lighter and paint-filled balloons in his backpack.

Another protester, still facing charges from Sunday afternoon, was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge and a charge that he encouraged a riot after police overheard him say “fight the police,” “f*** the police,” and “attack the police.” The report stated that because others were around while he said these statements there was an imminent threat for the use of violence. The suspect pleaded not guilty to those charges.

“When I got the transcript and I reviewed, I was very proud of their work and they presented the arguments that should have been presented to obtain the release of many of the individuals. Unfortunately, those arguments were not successful,” said Cofer.

Cofer says increased bond for non-violent protesters is another example of the need for bond reform in Jacksonville.

“The primary reason for setting bond is to one, protect the community, two, to ensure the individuals will return to court,” Cofer said. “Most of these dockets were for non-violent offenses. We within the defense community and I think many outside groups that have come in and studied have concerns about how bond has historically been set.”

“So many communities have done bond reform and we are convinced that we need to do it here. The individuals who came through for the most part were not a continuing risk to the community. They were peaceful protesters,” said Cofer. “Most of them were determined to have their day in court so the likelihood of them returning to court was good. People who are put in jail on non-violent offenses who have been in the community a long time, who are a good risk to return to court wind up sitting in jail for days, weeks, sometimes months at a time merely because they are poor and can’t afford it.”

News4Jax attempted to contact Judge Bateh for an explanation and so far we have not heard back.

About the Author:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.