PARIS – A change in the law that Maine judges use when contemplating bail amounts for those charged with dangerous crimes may keep more suspects behind bars, according to a local prosecutor and defense attorney.

But the change may also trigger a round of civil suits challenging its constitutionality, defense attorney Maurice Porter of Paris said.

The change, which allows judges to now consider whether a suspect may present a safety risk to the public, went into effect the week before police shot and killed attempted murder suspect Scott White in Rumford while he was out on a $50,000 surety bail.

“As a general rule, everybody has a right to bail,” Oxford County Assistant District Attorney Joe O’Connor said. “But previously, the court was not allowed to consider the safety of the community. Now it can.”

Surety bail is usually a title or deed to a property with a market value that’s worth at least the amount of the bail. The property could then be taken by the court if the suspect, after being released, does not show up for trial or any required court hearings.

“I think the general public would have been shocked to find out that public safety was not a consideration when setting bail before,” Porter said. “At first blush, this seems like one of those common-sense kind of changes, but the practical reality of it is much different. I think you are going to see a lot of civil actions filed in any case where the primary bail consideration by the judge was public safety … There are constitutional issues that attorneys see right away with this.”

White, charged with trying to murder his wife with a knife, had barricaded himself in her house and was threatening to burn it down last Sunday. Before he was fatally shot, White charged police with a knife after they had tried to subdue him with a Taser, police said.

The day after White was shot, another attempted murder suspect from Rumford, Dwight Knox, was arrested in Livermore Falls on a charge of violating his bail conditions by drinking. Knox was held at the Androscoggin County Jail for two days and then released for the time he served on the bail condition violation. He remains free on the $50,000 surety bail put up by a cellmate’s mother, O’Connor said. Because there is not new criminal conduct involved in the Knox case, he is allowed to remain on bail, O’Connor said.

The bail amounts for both White and Knox were set under the previous bail law which allowed judges to consider only a suspect’s general flight risk, whether he was likely to interfere with the judicial process, or reoffend.

Some have said the $50,000 surety bail that both White and Knox were freed on was too low considering their past records and the charges they faced. But even prosecutors like O’Connor acknowledge the courts cannot intentionally make bail unobtainable. O’Connor said he believes higher bail was requested for both men but a judge denied that considering the law.

State Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, and state Rep. Darlene Curley, R-Scarborough, pushed for the bail law change. Diamond said the legislation was prompted by the case of Scott Hewitt.

Hewitt was driving on a suspended license and had 63 prior driving convictions when the tractor-trailer he was driving struck a car in a construction area on the Maine Turnpike, killing 40-year-old Tina Turcotte of Scarborough. When Hewitt’s bail was lowered from $500,000 surety to $300,000, Diamond was outraged.

“I realize that the court’s hands are tied somewhat because Maine law doesn’t allow for preventive detention through bail,” Diamond said at the time.

This week, Diamond said the case of Scott White and Dwight Knox might be two other examples of why preventive detention for some suspects makes sense. Knox’s record includes five assault convictions in Maine and a Florida conviction for assaulting a law enforcement officer. Knox is the kind of suspect Diamond had in mind when drafting the bail law change, he said.

“Hopefully we will see this make a difference in keeping some suspects from being able to reoffend while they are out on bail,” Diamond said.

The law change was mentioned earlier this week by Judge Valerie Stanfill when she set bail Monday for yet another attempted murder suspect from Rumford, Alvah Pike. Police said Pike tried to stab a man to death last Sunday. Like Knox, Pike has multiple assault convictions. Attempts to reach Stanfill for comment on the law change were unsuccessful Friday.

In setting Pike’s surety bail at $250,000, Stanfill noted the law change, Porter and O’Connor said. Pike may be one of the first suspects to be scrutinized under the new bail provisions.

Preventive detention is allowed at the federal level, but it also comes with some protections for suspects. Among those protections is a requirement that pretrial suspects cannot be held in the same facility as convicted criminals, Porter said. There are also “speedy trial” provisions in federal law that limit how long a suspect can be held without bail, Porter said.

“The U.S. bail code does allow preventive detention but it also has safety mechanisms that Maine does not,” Porter said.

Porter said judges in both district and superior courts in Maine are “particularly fair and open-minded,” when it comes to setting bail and generally make bail reasonably obtainable.

But with new provisions in the bail law that allow or even require a judge to consider public safety, it’s likely surety bail amounts will creep higher for suspects who may be considered dangerous.

“This is a new tool (judges) have, and when they think it is time to, they are going to use it,” Porter said.

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