I have previously written about one of my big blunders. Here’s another. Thank the Gods it never made the papers.
I was a United States Magistrate Judge from 1987 until I became an Article III judge in 1992. I served in Omaha. Among many other duties, Magistrate Judges typically handle bail questions under the Bail Reform Act. In most cases, and while the accused is charged but not convicted, the Bail Reform Act mandates release on conditions. Being the earnest young judge that I was, I took the Act’s directions too seriously.
The federal system uses pretrial services officers to investigate the accused to determine whether he or she is a suitable candidate for pretrial release. If the accused is released, the pretrial services officer must supervise the accused. While pretrial services officers are employees of the court, they are also federal law enforcement officers in the sense that they have the power to make arrests. They carry weapons and are trained like other federal law enforcement officers.
Don Ranheim was the pretrial services officer I worked with in Omaha. He later became the Chief Pretrial Services Officer for our district. Don is retired now. Because these officers are treated like law enforcement, they are forced to retire at a relatively young age due to the physical demands of the job.
One day, Don came to my office. He described an offender who had been charged with some crime. The man had been arrested on a warrant. Don told me that the guy had an extensive criminal history and was generally surly and nasty. Don said the guy was a drunk too. Don thought the guy was a flight risk, and recommended that I detain the man.
When I went into the courtroom, I noticed that the guy had only one leg. He wore a prosthetic leg, but it had been taken from him due to security concerns of the US Marshals. I thought that was a bit much. I also noticed that the guy was about as old as I am now. I learned that guy was a diabetic, and had a series of other fairly serious health problems.
I told Don and the lawyers that I wasn’t going to follow Don’s recommendation. I remember remarking about how cruel it would be to detain the guy given his conditions. And, the US Marshals were damn sure going to give the guy back his leg–security concerns, my ass. Don, who was always very respectful, said, “It’s your call judge.” The Marshals said nothing.
Well, I released the guy to a halfway house. Shortly thereafter the guy got drunk, unscrewed his leg, took it off, hopped past the attendant at the front desk threatening to hit her with the leg, hailed a cab and escaped. This is all true. None of this is an exaggeration.
While the US Marshals eventually caught the guy (and his plastic leg), I became the first magistrate judge in the nation to lose a guy with one leg. Now, when I see a guy with one leg, I have this almost overpowering impulse to trip him.