Conditions of bail and 8th amendment freedoms – reflections on domestic violence homicide

The 8th Amendment guarantees that people will not be faced with unfair conditions while in custody nor should they have undue hardship following adjudication. But when victim safety requires it then some modification of this rule must be considered. Dangerousness to possible victims requires some abusive subjects (usually men) be held without opportunity for bail at least as long as it takes to confirm that there is no immediate danger to possible family members. This evaluation sometimes takes hours to days to complete. In Massachusetts, here in the US, some courts have court clinics that can assess persons in custody for risk of suicide and dangerousness. The pandemic has reduced this option significantly and arraignments were conducted virtually for months. Many district courts work with domestic violence agencies on a regular basis sometimes in the court buildings near court rooms.

Maine Law Review

Not much has changed since the Maine Law Review cited our work in its 2012 in Nicole Bissonnette’s review of bail conditions following domestic violence. Ms. Bissonnette published second paper in 2017, in the same MAINE Law Review that gives some quick and easy fixes for the 8th Amendment conundrum as it pertains to domestic violence. It is a fact that victims generally do not call police when the abuse first begins. It is also a fact that if a victim has been threatened with death if she “leaves” or “asks for a divorce” then her risk is substantially elevated and a safety plan must be provided including an order of protection.

The 8th amendment guarantees that excessive bail nor excessive fines shall not be required when someone is in custody and when found guilty of a crime. In many cases of domestic violence assault, abusive spouses are released on personal recognizance – essentially no bail is taken. Abusers are required to show-up on the next court day (usually Monday morning) and answer to charges of assault, domestic abuse, or whatever the evidence shows. The 8th Amendment also specifies that punishment for crimes shall not be excessive, overly punitive or harsh. It is frequent that abusers may have no criminal record whatsoever. Given that fact, it is hard to argue for high bail in a case where the defendant is unlikely to skip out on an initial hearing. This is precisely the reason why officer reports must include detailed statements from victims and witnesses – especially children.

I agree in principle that bail should not be punitive but neither should a family be faced with constant fear and danger because of the arrogant defiance of an abusive spouse. People without means do not have money for bail and some individuals are unfairly kept in jail simply because they or their families do not have cash for release from custody. So, a person who may be unemployed and was picked up for shoplifting and has 2 prior arrests may have an artificially high bail so he sits for weeks in a county jail awaiting trial. There are times when dangerous supersedes the right to be released from custody. This requires close scrutiny for making bail conditions that reflect risk to community and red flags for individual families.

In the 2017 Maine Law Review, Nicole Bissonnette restated her 2012 premise that bail conditions must be considered carefully when it comes to letting violent intimate partners out of custody. Ms.Bissonnette smartly cited the work done by this author and colleagues that brought these issues into sharp focus (Allanach et al. 2012). The importance of orders of protection cannot be understated in preventing domestic violence homicide. “The purpose of this follow-up comment is to evaluate the existing (PFA) system and assess methods of improving outcomes while avoiding prohibitive fiscal impacts” according to Ms. Bissonnete, 2017. The process, structure and failings of the existing system will be illustrated by the tragic deaths of Amy Lake and her two children, who were murdered by Steven Lake, despite the PFA in effect at the time. It was this case that brought domestic violence homicide into national prominence and provided substantive recommendations for mitigating DVH. Information is often unavailable to bail clerks or even judges when PFA’s are needed most. Information such as whether the defendant has previously violated conditions of release, probation or other orders, including, but not limited to, violating protection from abuse orders according to Jennifer Thompson, 2004. When these factors are affirmed then bail conditions must be revised in real time accordingly. Substantial bail for violation of protective orders is but one of them. Some believe that having non-refundable, very high bail is the only sanction to prevent recurring violations of the PFA. The 8th Amendment informs that bail may not unfairly impact people without employment and those who do not have financial means to buy there way out of jail.

There are cases, as recently as 2021 where a protection order was denied and domestic violence escalated into death of the New Hampshire suspect and critical injuries to intimate partner who became the victim. A judge did not think a protective order was warranted. Similarly, in Austin, TX, a disgraced police officer shot and killed his step-daughter, the teen’s boyfriend and his former wife in April 2021, even after the teenage girl begged for a protective order with the option to hold the abuser in jail. Her fear was palpable. The shooter was required to wear an ankle bracelet for 90 days after which he was free to stalk his former family who were trying to move on. There were several flaws in the safety plan in this case that ultimately triggered the terminal event such as coming together for planned visitation so the former police officer could visit his son who was not murdered. In New Hampshire, a judge denied a protective order on the basis that the abuser had not been violent since 2016 although acknowledged that the man was coercive and controlling. The victim, Lindsay Smith, was shot and critically wounded in Salem, MA in November 2021. Her former boyfriend, who had stalked the victim for the years since the break-up reportedly said he intended to forever “turn her life upside down” died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. This may have been avoided if the temporary restraining that had expired had been approved to become a permanent restraining order as the victim had petitioned.

The desire to mitigate police discretion in domestic violence cases stems, in part, from problems relating to “the inherent ambiguity of the police-citizen encounter in the context of domestic violence.”

Jennifer Thompson, 2004 Maine Law Review

The domestic violence literature suggests that after 5-7 beatings victims will reluctantly summon police – especially if they fear either they or their children are about to be murdered. The details Calais, ME case of domestic violence are being carefully guarded even today. It is known that Daniel Phinney, 26 was out on bail after being arrested and charged with domestic violence and criminal threatening in May 2013. At that point he must have both physically assaulted his significant other and threatened to kill or maim his family resulting in the charge of criminal threatening. Police are quick to say that Phinney had “no prior criminal history” perhaps in an effort to obfuscate public outrage evoked by the system of bail in Maine that releases violent abusers over and over again on low bail. Had anyone made an effort to determine the degree of risk posed by Daniel Phinney prior to his release? Had anyone registered safety concerns based on the defendant’s behavior and history? If there had been routine aftermath follow-up then this may have been a known fact. A psychological assessment of Phinney may have provided important details about his impulse control, substance use, coping skill, and proclivity toward violence and had been charged previously with domestic violence. Phinney was killed by police in a stand-off in Calais, Maine shortly after being released from custody.

The case is reminiscent of the 2011 Steven Lake homicide in Dexter. Lake had twice been released on bail before murdering his family.  The medical autopsy concluded that “in spite of psychological counseling (the state) failed to appreciate the degree of anger and violence in Steven Lake”.  He had also been charged with criminal threatening after holding his family at gunpoint as he drove home the point about how much he loved them but he could not let Amy move on. 

Using a firearm in the commission of a domestic violence incident is defacto evidence of dangerousness and no bail shall be considered until such time as all firearms are collected and a viable safety plan is in place for potential victims including police protection. Michael Sefton, Ph.D. 2021

I was a member of a team that conducted a psychological autopsy on Steven Lake that resulted in over 50 recommendations to the esteemed Maine Attorney General’s Homicide Review panel in November 2012. At first glance there appears to be brash indifference toward the court protection order and the failure to remove firearms held by the defendant. It is now important to study the case of Daniel Phinney and others, so we ma learn from the many red flags exhibited in the weeks prior to his death. These red flag events must lead to stopping and containments points in future cases of domestic violence and domestic violence homicide. No family should be kept in fear by a spouse whose loathsome behavior derails all human spirit and sense of dignity.

At what point does the well-being of victims and potential victims rise above the abuser’s right to bail?

Michael Sefton, 2014 on the 8th Amendment and PFA orders


Allanach, R et al., Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011), http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811- 111.pdf.

Bissonnette, NR (2012). Domestic Violence and Enforcement of Protection from Abuse Orders: Simple Fixes to Help Prevent Intra-Family Homicide, 65 Me. L. Rev. 287. Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol65/iss1/12

Thompson, J (2004). Who’s Afraid of Judicial Activism? Reconceptualizing a Traditional Paradigm in the Context of Specialized Domestic Violence Court Programs, 56 Me. L. Rev. 407.

Sefton, M. (2021) Domestic violence and the importance of red flag warnings for preventing homicide. WordPress Blogpost. https://msefton.blog/2021/04/24/domestic-violence-and-the-importance-of-red-flag-warnings-for-preventing-homicide/ taken 2-25-2021

2 thoughts on “Conditions of bail and 8th amendment freedoms – reflections on domestic violence homicide

    • As you know Dr Gagan, the sanguinous repetition of domestic violence has now resulted in a database comprised of woman who have had brain injury from spousal assault and battery. Unfortunately, no such database exists for tracking the intimate partners and warning potential partners. Let the honeymoon begin! Thanks for your words!

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