In Lancaster, criminal justice reform advocates say $1M bail was meant to ‘punish or deter’ protests

Lancaster City Council President Ismail Wade-Smith speaks about the bail amounts set for people protesting the police shooting death of Ricardo Munñoz. (Capital-Star photo by Lauren Manelius)

LANCASTER, Pa. – Local advocacy groups called Thursday for reforms to Pennsylvania’s bail system after a local magisterial district judge reduced the $1 million bail he imposed on most of the nine people protesting the police shooting of city resident Ricardo Muñoz.

The groups, Lancaster Stands Up, SafeHouse Lancaster, Green Dreamz, ACLU PA, and the Lancaster NAACP, denounced what they described as a “broken criminal justice system.” 

But Magisterial District Judge Bruce Roth’s decision to reduce the bail for some of the defendants “doesn’t undo the original flagrantly illegal” amounts, said Hayden Nelson-Major, an attorney with the ACLU-PA, who said there were major indicators that the original $1 million bail amounts were illegal. 

“The rules of criminal procedure mandate that a judge consider the individual circumstances of the particular person appearing before them,” Nelson-Major said. “The fact that MDJ Roth imposed identical bail on the group of people arrested in connection with the protest activity absolutely demonstrates his failure to abide by the rules of criminal procedure.”

“The orders were also illegal because they reflected a determination that these defendants could afford $1 million bail,” Nelson-Major continued. “The rules of criminal procedure in the Constitution require that a judge consider a person’s ability to pay. It is inconceivable that MDJ believed or concluded that each person possessed the ability to post $1 million. Make no mistake — these orders were in fact detention orders. That bail was primarily set to either punish or deter future protest activity.”

Lancaster City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade-el spoke about how the situation is an example of a problem we see playing out across the country.

“The existing system of cash bail is discrimination against poor people. It links directly the right to freedom to one’s inability to produce a significant amount of money,” said Smith-Wade-el. “We are talking about people that the community scrambled to put money into their commissary funds. We are not talking about folks who have private jets and are immediate flight risks who get to stay in federal country clubs. We are talking about Black 19-, 20-, and 21-year olds who did their best to move their community forward.”

Report: Lancaster protesters held on $1M bond in wake of police shooting

Isaac Etter, co-executive director of SafeHouse Lancaster, an education and advocacy organization focused on young people of color, spoke about knowing many of those arrested.

“I’ve seen their character, I’ve seen their hearts, I’ve watched them pick people off the ground to avoid getting hurt. I’ve seen them run through pepper spray, and now tear gas, to make sure other people in this community are okay and able to get home. It is completely unfair that their bail was set at $1 million — and unconstitutional as well,” said Etter. “I am hurt, deeply, by this system that forces our young people to live in fear of speaking out. And I am proud that despite this fear, these young people show up, time and time again, for this community. And for the betterment of this community.”

Etter also read a statement from Mary Enterline, the mother of Taylor Enterline, 20, who was among those arrested. Some witnesses reported that Enterline was administering first aid to protesters when she was arrested.

“We know that you, like us, know her to be a passionate and peaceful person,” the statement read in part. “We are so grateful that she will be able to come home with her family soon.”

The central Pennsylvania city was thrust into the national spotlight last weekend after a knife-wielding Muñoz charged a police officer. 

According to multiple sources, the officer fired at Munoz several times, killing him at the scene, the Capital-Star reported Tuesday.

Muñoz died near his mother’s home on the 300 block of Laurel Street. 

His sister, Rulennis Muñoz, said she had called the police non-emergency number and Crisis Intervention to try to get him involuntarily committed for care after he went off his medication, and was acting erratically at his sister’s and mother’s residences. According to his family, he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and dysthymia.

The incident set off days of protests. Police arrested 15 people in relation to protesting Muñoz’s death: eight on Sunday night, five on Monday related to Sunday’s protests, and two on Monday night after protests continued. 

The Capital-Star contacted Lancaster City Police to ascertain whether Rulennis Muñoz had called 911 or the emergency line, and whether or not officers were made aware of Ricardo Muñoz’s mental status and criminal history, which includes charges of aggravated assault with a knife. The department had not yet responded by the time of publication.

The answers to those questions are key to community members who are concerned about the preparedness of the police in responding to the situation.

“Was there a breakdown in communication among the police and Crisis Intervention? There are strategies to respond to a mentally ill person who is off meds and decomposing,” Mary Theresa Webb told the Capital-Star. 

Webb, a pastoral counselor in Lancaster who practices family and addiction intervention, said more information was needed to evaluate the police response to the incident.

Police have not yet released the name of the officer involved, who was the first to respond. 

Muñoz was already a presence in the criminal justice and mental health systems. He was awaiting trial for a March 2019 incident in which he stabbed four people during an argument over allegedly stolen property. 

After not being able to afford bail, he was released from prison in April 2019 under the conditions he be placed on house arrest with electronic monitoring and avoid contact with the victims.

In June 2019, Judge Dennis Reinaker ordered Muñoz undergo a mental health evaluation after violating the terms of his house arrest. That evaluation is in possession of the Lancaster County Public Defender’s office, which says it cannot be shared publicly. 

Later that month, Judge Margaret Miller ended Muñoz’s house arrest. 

In January 2020, a clinician who  evaluated Muñoz sent a letter to his public defense attorney stating he appeared to be “disoriented, confused and incoherent” in therapy sessions, LancasterOnline reported. 

His trial was to begin in March 2020, but was most recently postponed to this coming October, after several pandemic-related reschedules.

Capital-Star reporter Elizabeth Hardison wrote last year about Pennsylvania’s cash bail system

The average bail amount in Pennsylvania is difficult to identify, because the state doesn’t collect or disclose bail bond contracts or fees. In Philadelphia, available data shows bail amounts varying from a few thousand dollars for low-level offenders to $250,000 for more serious felonies.

Research shows that bail amounts are influenced by the defendant’s race and social standing more than the given charges. A study by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency found that the input of a prosecutor has an “overwhelming influence” on how judges set bail.

Several local government officials have responded to Muñoz’s death and the related protests. 

In a Monday news conference, Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace called on the to support both Muñoz’s family and the officer. She spoke of budget cuts to agencies that provide support to mentally ill individuals like Muñoz, and said the city needs help developing evidence-based protocol for de-escalating situations like the one that resulted in his death, WGAL-TV reported.

Correspondent Lauren Manelius covers Lancaster and Lancaster County for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @ElManels.