Centralized Bond Hearing Court (copy)

Centralized Bond Hearing Court and Preliminary Hearing Court located at 3831 Leeds Ave. Recent threats against a downtown Charleston hospital and a Mount Pleasant preschool have provided an important window into how the criminal justice system handles risks to public safety. Brad Nettles/Staff

Recent threats against a downtown Charleston hospital and a Mount Pleasant preschool have provided an important window into how the criminal justice system handles risks to public safety. 

Early on Aug. 17, a man was escorted out of Medical University Hospital's emergency department. He later called and threatened to shoot security officers, "especially the black ones," authorities said.

Four days later, a different man trespassed on the grounds of a preschool in Mount Pleasant and implied he might shoot students, according to police. 

In an age when threats against schools, hospitals, churches and other institutions seem to make daily headlines alongside news of mass shootings and other acts of violence, criminal justice officials around the nation are faced with a crucial task — balancing an obligation to fair process with the need for public safety.

In the Lowcountry, efforts are no different, with the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council working to shape a system in which crime is still addressed but people are not stripped of their rights in the pursuit of justice. 

"There’s always going to be particular incidents that are going to alarm and cause concern," said Kristy Danford, CJCC's project director. "As a system, we have to look at what we have in place and what we don’t have in place. We still have to build our capacity and our resources. We're not there yet." 

In the recent threat cases, which are not connected, both defendants were arrested and charged with misdemeanors. The man accused of threatening Medical University Hospital faces one count of unlawful use of a telephone and has been released on personal recognizance. The defendant accused in the Mount Pleasant case was charged with disturbing schools, received a $500,000 bond and was released after posting bail.

Although both cases are misdemeanors, the hospital threat case is being adjudicated at the magistrate level while the school threat case is being handled at the general sessions court level, and carries a greater penalty if the defendant is found guilty, said 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who added that her office is only involved in the preschool threat case.

Generally speaking, different bond amounts can be attributed to differences in defendants' criminal or mental health histories, Wilson said. State law mandates judges to grant reasonable bond to defendants charged with crimes not classified as violent under state statutes.  

"Judges are criticized repeatedly for not detaining people and setting bonds for defendants that the law requires them to set," she said. "There are many crimes that the public, and I, believe are pretty violent, dangerous, or have the potential to be, but are not classified as such."

And the solicitor added that a risk assessment tool that CJCC has helped incorporate into the bond setting process was not used in either recent threat case because magistrate-level cases aren't subject to the assessment tool and the tool hasn't yet been incorporated for all cases at the general sessions level. 

Charleston County Public Defender Ashley Pennington said he could not speak directly on the cases, but was able to comment on CJCC's work, and on the bond-setting process in particular.

In bond court, a magistrate looks at available facts to assess how big of a risk a defendant is to the public, Pennington said. 

Before CJCC, which was founded in 2015, magistrates had little to go on except information provided by the arresting officer, he said. The group implemented a risk assessment program and placed a public defender in bond court for indigent defendants. 

"Once you get parties involved and have representation, you can inquire more reliably and fairly about what actually happened," he said. "Without that representation, the first bond isn’t reliable because it’s based on less information."

And Wilson added that there are several misconceptions about the bond process in South Carolina, chiefly that the bond amount as a significant impact. 

"It does not," she said. "South Carolina has no legal requirement for how much a bondsman must collect to free a defendant. Most people say 10 percent. That’s just not true. Oftentimes, bondsmen post bond on a defendant’s promise to pay them 2 percent on a payment plan. Because of this, the amount of a bond is not ... always a decent measure of a defendant’s commitment to comply with bond conditions."

A high bond amount might seem good to the public but means next to nothing many times, Wilson said, adding that bondsmen are an invaluable resource for finding defendants who flee and play a role in helping authorities make sure defendants comply with the conditions of their bond.

Mount Pleasant police declined to comment on the school threat case; however, Chief Carl Ritchie issued a statement assuring residents of his department's commitment to protecting the public. 

"Our department is continuing to work with our state, federal and mental health partners to ensure the safety of our community," according to the statement. "All of the Mount Pleasant public schools have an assigned school resource officer and we are constantly patrolling private schools and day care centers."

A court document filed Wednesday by Wilson sheds more light into the school threat case and how authorities have responded to the defendant's potential risk. 

In the document, a motion to modify the defendant's bond, prosecutors said they did not oppose the $500,000 bond amount but did have concerns about the bond's conditions. 

The motion details the defendant's criminal history, which dates back to 2004, when he was a minor, and includes multiple instances of harassment against a female, who was not identified. The defendant admitted to the charge and was given probation, which he later violated.

Multiple restraining orders were taken out against him in the years since and his alleged actions have generated multiple complaints to law enforcement, the motion said. In early 2018, he allegedly threatened to shoot someone, and tried to buy a shotgun while asking for "the most lethal ammunition available."

The defendant has also been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment on at least one occasion in March 2018, the motion said.

"The records indicate that the defendant has a previous autism, psychosis and schizophrenia diagnosis," the motion said. 

In the document, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson requested that several conditions be added to the defendant's bond, including that he not return to the incident location or any other schools and similar facilities, that he stay with his parents under house arrest and satellite monitoring, and that he stay under mental health treatment until released from care, among other conditions.

Across the state, authorities have been grappling with how to best address similar threats.

Hanahan police are investigating a threat made against Hanahan High School on Wednesday that was later determined to be a hoax.

The incident prompted a campus evacuation and the investigation is ongoing with assistance from the FBI. 

In July, a white, 16-year-old student at Cardinal Newman School in Columbia, made a series of racist videos. In one of them, he threatened to "shoot up the school." 

The student was expelled and charged under the 1-year-old law of "student threats," but the law lacks a punishment. 

Officials at the Catholic school didn't inform parents of the videos or the threat for 13 days, angering some of them.

The Lexington County Sheriff’s Department has charged three people with student threats since the law's creation. The charge has been used in 33 cases resulting in 13 convictions in the 16th Judicial Circuit of York and Union counties. How often it’s been used statewide is unknown. The lack of a defined punishment in the law also makes it impossible for the state’s Court Administration to track it.

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Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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