What Constitutes Excessive Bail?

Any time a person is arrested they are entitled to a bail hearing. This hearing will determine the amount of money, if any, that must be paid upfront for a person to be released before their trial. The eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that “excessive bail shall not be required” for a person to garner their own release, so the question of what constitutes “excessive” often arises when a person goes to trial. There is not a set monetary amount that is considered extreme, but if a person feels they are being unfairly burdened by their bail amount there are legal recourses they can take.

Constitutional Rights

The eighth amendment was a part of the original U.S. Bill of Rights that was drafted in 1791, and it guarantees protection against excessive bail. A certain monetary amount was not provided for any specific crime, so the idea of what constitutes a disproportionate bail amount is very subjective. A fair bail amount is one that is considered reasonably sufficient to ensure a person does not flee prior to their trial. These amounts can often seem high without being excessive, but in these cases bail bond agents can provide the necessary funding to garner a person’s release.

The Right to Bail

Many people who are unfamiliar with constitutional law may assume that the eighth amendment guarantees a person bail. This is not accurate. The Constitution only provides that a bail amount cannot be more extreme than necessary to ensure a person’s return to trial. People charged with capital crimes, a crime punishable by life imprisonment or death, may be denied bail altogether. It is believed that no bail amount could ensure that certain people will return to trial when facing such extreme consequences. In these cases a judge may deny bail outright, thus guaranteeing the accused will sit in jail until their court date.

There are some instances when a bail amount may seem excessive, yet still be fully constitutional. A person of limited means may be given a $10,000 bail amount which is considered sufficient to ensure their return. However, a person who makes millions of dollars a year may not be sufficiently convinced to appear by paying that same amount. So even if these two defendant’s commit the same serious crime, the richer of the two may be given a bail amount far exceeding $10,000. Bail is meant to ensure the defendant’s presence at trial, and if an extremely high amount is deemed necessary then it is considered legal.

Legal Recourse to Excessive Bail

There are instances when higher courts may feel that a set bail amount is unwarranted. If a judge sets a bail amount that is either disproportionate to the crime, or more than necessary to ensure the accused returns for trial, then a defendant must take action. If the accused or their bail bond agent believes that bail is too much in a certain case, then they must notify a person’s attorney. A lawyer can make a motion in open court requesting that a bail amount be lowered. If this is unsuccessful then the attorney may appeal directly to a higher court.

Appellate courts do not always agree with a lower court’s decision. In the 1951 case of Stack v. Boyle, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a $50,000 bail amount was unwarranted to ensure that members of the Communist Party returned for their trials. The persons accused actually made a motion in court to reduce their bail and then appealed to another court when their motion was denied. Their appeal was also denied which led to the case being heard by the Supreme Court. This shows that local courts cannot always be trusted to enforce the Constitution. When this is the case it is important for the lawyer of the accused to work toward a lower bail amount to ensure their client’s rights.

Excessive bail is constitutionally illegal within the United States. There are instances when a person may feel their bail amount is unwarranted, but this doesn’t mean the legal system agrees. A particularly high bail amount should never just be accepted if it is superfluous. There are instances in American judicial history where excessive bail was set and overturned by other courts. Whether bail is set too high or not is often subjective, but anyone who feels that they are being unnecessarily burdened by their bail amount should try their best to remedy the situation legally. 

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