Eric's Law

The Sheriff's Office is still releasing people in the dead of night



By now the story is familiar, though no less ghastly. Shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, 2014, Gary Lee Bullock walked out of the Humboldt County jail. By dawn, St. Bernard pastor Eric Freed was dead.

While a parish reeled with the loss of its leader and a community tried to make sense of the brutal crime, focus turned to the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, whose staff had released Bullock from jail shortly before the killing.

Why had they done that, the community asked? The Journal attempted, in a story that month called "Dead of Night," to answer a broader question: Why does the jail release anyone in the middle of the night?

It's a question we're still asking. The sheriff's office has enacted changes aimed at protecting inmates and the community, but there are still dozens of people released every month into downtown Eureka in the middle of the night.

Freed was the second victim of homicide in a several-month span that had followed a late-night jail release, when social services and shelters are closed and buses don't run. Bullock was originally jailed Dec. 31 on suspicion of being under the influence, and exhibited violent, bizarre behavior during his arrest.

Hindsight was the Sheriff's Office's bane, of course. No one knew that Bullock would go on to commit a disturbing crime that night. But people still wanted answers. A community meeting overflowed with sadness, anger and fear as Sheriff Mike Downey explained release policies and his responsibility to the U.S. Constitution, which limits how long people can be detained without charges filed against them. When people were ready to be released, the jail released them, Downey explained, whether that was noon or midnight.

But jail policies began to change. In May of that year, Downey announced the jail would conduct exit interviews with inmates, and would offer them the chance to stay in custody until daylight, if they chose. The sheriff's office also announced it would begin returning money taken on intake in the form of debit cards rather than the previously issued checks.

In August of 2014, the county grand jury released its investigation into the jail policy, saying that it may have been in violation of a state law that requires transportation to be provided to people arrested more than 25 miles from the jail. On top of that, the grand jury recommended the sheriff's office should immediately stop releasing people between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., adding that it had determined constitutional concerns cited by the sheriff weren't likely to have legal impacts.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that jails can legally hold people for 48 hours before they must be brought before a judge," the Journal reported following the recommendation. "Releasing them prior to that period is discretionary, the grand jury determined."

But Downey said the jail would not comply with the grand jury and late-night jail releases continue to this day.

Where do we stand now? Public pressure on the sheriff has eased in the years since Freed's killing, but Bullock's trial brought new details and prompted some new questions. And the Sheriff's Office has developed some new policies aimed at protecting the community and freshly released inmates.

Much of Bullock's trial centered around his motivation for breaking into the St. Bernard rectory, where Freed lived. Having been released from jail, shooed off church grounds by a security guard and visited by EPD officers, Bullock spent most of the early morning exhibiting strange behavior around the church.

The defense did not deny Bullock killed Freed, but indicated Bullock was searching for a safe, warm place to sleep. He had been arrested hours earlier in Redway and let out 65 miles away, when there were no shelters open for intake. The prosecution said Bullock broke into the rectory searching for the keys to Freed's car — for a way to get back home. After Freed's killing, Bullock stole the car and returned to Redway. Both sides essentially argued Bullock was motivated to commit his crimes because he was stranded and without shelter.

From March 1 to April 8 of this year, at least 130 people were released from the Humboldt County jail between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. onto the streets of Eureka. That number excludes inmates who were transferred somewhere, got bail bonds or had completed a sentence — the presumption being that those inmates would have had time to make arrangements and sober up in the time since their arrest.

The jail now conducts exit evaluations with inmates, during which corrections officers observe them for signs of intoxication, or for signals that they may pose a danger to themselves or others. It's pretty similar to a field sobriety test, said Duane Christian, the Sheriff's Office's compliance officer.

Correctional officers are trained to do this when they're hired, and also receive four hours a year of medical training that includes how to recognize signs and symptoms of being under the influence, Christian said.

"We also have a ... machine that can be used for screening the blood-alcohol level of someone if there is a concern after a considerable amount of sobering time they are still under the influence," he wrote in an email. "We are also looking for signs and systems of other intoxicants, not just alcohol."

The evaluation also includes a mental health component: Officers are expected to determine if the inmate presents a danger to him or herself or others, and if so, call upon a supervisor, who has the authority to take the inmate to Sempervirens psychiatric hospital.

During the evaluation, Christian said, officers offer inmates a ride to Sempervirens, even if they're not exhibiting mental health problems.

When inmates are released in the late night or early morning hours, Christian said, the evaluator offers them another option: to call a friend or family member for a ride, to call a cab for a ride, or to stay in custody until daylight hours. Inmates sign a form saying those offers were made.

The Sheriff's Office has also acknowledged that it must comply with state law, and provides bus tickets to indigent people being released from jail. That has been a successful program, Christian said, though the jail doesn't keep statistics on how many people have been given bus passes since it was instituted. He estimated it's fewer than five a month.

In "really, really rare" circumstances, deputies have given rides to people who've been arrested outside of bus coverage areas. A slightly more common occurrence, he said, is the arresting agency giving someone a ride back to the place of arrest.

Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills told the Journal in 2014 that he was more concerned about exit evaluations being robust than the time of day people were released. Asked about the jail's updated release policies, he said he hadn't seen them and couldn't comment on them, but added that he entrusts that to the sheriff.

Mills reiterated the sheriff's argument — that people couldn't be compelled to stay in custody past the time they were released just so they wouldn't be let out late at night.

To a certain extent, University of California Hastings law professor David Levine agrees, especially when it concerns people brought in on California's intoxication hold, when there's no intention of charging the person with a crime.

"It doesn't seem right that they could put some substantial minimum time on it," he said. "If you come in publicly intoxicated and, no matter what, sit in jail for 48 hours — then that becomes a punishment. ... If [an inmate who is] sober and had not committed another crime said, 'OK, I'm alright' — why shouldn't they be able to walk out?"

On the other hand, Levine said, there are liability concerns to consider. According to case law, once a person is taken into custody — whether he or she is taken to jail or not — the arresting agency cannot put him or her in danger.

Under certain circumstances, Levine said, releasing people in the middle of the night — where they could be subject to crime, the elements or dangerous traffic — could be a liability. A policy holding people until daylight, when shelter and buses are available, could be defensible, Levine said, as long as it doesn't exceed 48 hours and is "within the realm of reason."

In fact, six counties do hold inmates until it's safer to release them. The Sheriff's Office itself, in addressing its policy in 2014, found that six county jails in California (out of only 20 that had responded) hold inmates until daylight, citing a lack of transportation. The Imperial County jail told the Journal in 2014 its policy had never faced a legal challenge.

But while the Sheriff's Office said it would be amenable to change — and it seems to have the discretion to do so — late-night releases continue. The statute of limitations for a wrongful death lawsuit in Freed's case has passed. But Cathy Dellabalma, a long-time St. Bernard parishioner who hosted Freed's family during Bullock's trial, said the family desperately wants to see Humboldt County change its policy.

"They'd like to see it throughout the state, but especially in rural areas," said Dellabalma, who also served on the grand jury that recommended the change in policy that Downey refused to implement. "[Freed's] sisters had really hoped that there could be some kind of movement that would take place where that would be legally changed. It could be called 'Eric's Law.'

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