If you watch enough TV crime dramas, you may hear defense attorneys and prosecutors arguing in front of the judge about the amount of bail the defendant should pay. For the sake of drama, the defense may suggest that the accused pay nothing, and the prosecutor may suggest a very high sum. The fictional judge often takes the middle road.
What does all this mean to you if you have been arrested? What is bail, and why is it important? What if you cannot afford to pay it even when the judge orders a reasonable amount? These are all valid concerns, and it is wise to obtain the answers to these and other questions as early as possible after your arrest.
What is bail for?
Put simply, bail is the amount of money you pay as a guarantee that you will show up for your trial. It is like collateral that you get back if you return for your court date. The Constitution provides for bail as long as the court does not set an excessive amount. However, you may question how much is excessive since the Constitution does not set an amount.
Historically, the laws say jurisdictions should not use bail as a form of punishment, nor should bail be a way for governments to raise capital. In fact, any amount above that which guarantees you will return for your next court appointment is excessive and a violation of your rights. Still, some judges set enormous bails for those charged with drug trafficking, accused of violent crimes or believed to be a flight risk, and this is a widely accepted practice.
How can I afford it?
The judge may set your bail at a reasonable amount, but that does not mean you will have the means to pay it. Even if you have a home to mortgage or valuables to sell, you may have to seek the services of a bondsman to help you out. This often means paying a percentage of the bail to the bondsman, who covers the balance. You will likely end up paying a fee for this, and it can be expensive.
One way to try to avoid this is to seek the representation of an attorney who will fight to keep your bail reasonable or even seek your release without bail, depending on the circumstances of your case. Having an attorney on your side may provide you with clear guidance for the most appropriate course of action from the moment of your arrest.