When it comes to setting bail, where does a judge draw the line between what's right for a defendant and what's in the best interest of the community?
On one hand, defendants are innocent until proven guilty and have a right to release from jail under certain circumstances. On the other, the pubic is entitled to general safety, a right that is possibly compromised when an alleged criminal is set free.
When Clarence Helgevold Jr. allegedly hit and killed 47-year-old George Larion in a January snowmachine-car collision, he was charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence and felony manslaughter. Eric Derleth, Helgevold's defense attorney, asked Judge Anna Moran in his bail recommendation that the court consider a new approach when deciding his client's fate.
Helgevold, 60, is now the first defendant in the state of Alaska to use a relatively new electronic monitoring bracelet called House Arrest Solution. The bracelet, while equipped with GPS technology, also monitors the presence of alcohol transdermally -- through the client's skin -- and immediately alerts the authorities of any misconduct.
"He's only allowed to leave his house for court and medical appointments and other very limited release options," said Aaron Parker, director of Alaska Pretrial Services, the non-profit, defendant-funded program that provides the device, monitoring, and supervision. "Otherwise he's really under 24-hour house arrest to his place out there on Funny River Road."
On March 8, Helgevold was accepted into the APS program, paid the $20,000 bond portion of his bail, and returned to his general store up Funny River Road with a little black box strapped to his ankle. He operates the store and also occupies an adjoining room.
Parker says the prosecution is generally excited about the application of this new technology, which has been implemented throughout the Lower 48 but never in Alaska. However, the state objected at Helgevold's bail hearing and at a subsequent status hearing, claiming that, due to the nature of the case, Helgevold should not be used as the first Alaska guinea pig.
The technology was tested by APS employees for three months prior to being used on Helgevold and has proven reliable in the Lower 48. Parker discussed some issues APS encountered at the Tuesday status hearing, citing a rapidly depleting battery and weak cellular coverage as two issues that arose.
"We did have some minor battery problems," Parker said. "The battery didn't deplete down to zero and lose him, but it wasn't staying charged very long so we replaced it with another battery."
A cellular booster was placed in the store and an exterior antenna was installed to increase the available signal, as the device's functionality is dependant on maintaining a sufficiently strong cellular signal.
An older monitoring system, called a MIMS 3000, is also in place at Helgevold's store. The console takes the user's picture when they blow into it at random intervals signaled by a chime. APS also has the right to conduct random searches of Helgevold's person, property, residence, and any vehicle he is in control of, and have stopped by the store approximately seven times to check in since he was released.
"Mr. Helgevold is not guilty of anything," Parker reminded those quick to condemn. "There's the presumption of innocence which we all enjoy as Americans and is the pinnacle of the criminal justice system that we have.
"At the same time, these judges and magistrates still have to look out for the interest of public safety, because the allegations are not there for no reason."
Parker acknowledged that this is a relatively high-profile case, as Helgevold was featured on The Discovery Channel's three-part miniseries called "America's Deadliest Season" in 2004. The show, effectively a pilot for what is now known as "Deadliest Catch," followed Helgevold and his crew during the 2003-2004 opilio crab season. Parker said that Helgevold is not receiving special treatment because of this fact.
"Anybody that goes under our program is treated the same," he said. "If Mr. Helgevold were to violate his release conditions or violate aspects of our agreement, we will put him in handcuffs, take him to jail, go right to lunch, and not think twice about it."
Parker also made clear that his program, which he started in December 2009 after a career in law enforcement, does not work for the prosecution, nor does it work for the defense. His job is to make that precarious line easier for judges and magistrates to walk -- to reconcile a defendant's rights with public safety.
But still, there are pitfalls, and those two issues aren't the only factors at play here.
When Moran was weighing the arguments of the defense with the objections of the prosecution at the bail hearing, she addressed Parker. She asked if he were in the position of the victim's family, if he had lost a loved one at the hands of an alleged drunk driver, would he want the accused released under the program?
Parker thought, and answered honestly: "No."
"I would not want him out for a lot of reasons. If I lost a family member I would want that person to stay in jail the rest of their lives."
Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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