A local judge has been too lenient in setting bail for criminal suspects who often are charged with more crimes while they are free and awaiting their trials, Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County Sheriff's Office officials said Monday.
Town Councilman Bill Harkins, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, lamented "a revolving door" of criminals after sheriff's Capt. Toby McSwain said deputies often make arrests in robbery and burglary cases one day, only to arrest the same suspects days or weeks later after they post bond.
Their criticism focused on Judge Ralph E. "Ned" Tupper.
McSwain used the example of a Hilton Head man charged Sept. 16 after a traffic stop allegedly yielded stolen drugs, weapons and a stolen iPad.
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Dillon B. Clark, 22, was charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession with intent to distribute marijuana and cocaine, possession of a stolen firearm, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He was released after posting a $115,000 bond, then arrested less than a month later for possession of marijuana. He was released again after posting a $620 bond, according to the Beaufort County Detention Center log and records from the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office.
Tupper set Clark's bail and stipulations for release.
"We feel like at times we're butting our heads against a wall," Sheriff P.J. Tanner said in a phone interview after Monday's meeting. "And it's not just an issue with Ned Tupper or one unique to our area, but the fact is, he's the one hearing most cases involving crimes committed on Hilton Head."
The town contracts with the city of Beaufort to have Beaufort's municipal judges set bail for those arrested for crimes on the island, instead of having its own municipal judge drive back and forth to Beaufort twice a day for bond hearings.
And since Tupper is a municipal judge as well as a magistrate, he handles nearly all morning bond hearings from towns in Beaufort County, according to town and court officials.
Attempts Monday to reach Tupper for comment were unsuccessful.
Concerns about repeat offenders surfaced Monday as the Public Safety Committee and officials from the Sheriff's Office reviewed third-quarter crime statistics for the island.
Assistant town manager Greg DeLoach said he has spoken with Tupper a couple of times to relay the displeasure of the Sheriff's Office and Town Council.
"He understands the complaint, but like any magistrate or municipal judge, is given discretion to set bond depending on any number of circumstances, including the severity of the crime," DeLoach said. "And like any judge, thinks it's unfortunate that someone is released and commits a crime days later. But that doesn't mean the judge has done anything inappropriate or improper.
"They have followed the law as far as the parameters for setting bond. It is an unfortunate consequence, but that happens across the country."
Tanner said the Sheriff's Office would like Tupper and other magistrates to revoke bond for people like Clark, who are charged with new crimes while awaiting trial on previous charges.
Two years ago, Solicitor Duffie Stone joined other prosecutors in the state to support legislation to create a new felony charge for people who commit crimes while out on bond. The bill, which failed last session, would have carried a five-year prison sentence for those convicted.
The committee took no action Monday. Members did not say whether they'll encourage council to re-evaluate the town's contract with Beaufort, but they did support the effort by Tanner and Stone for state sentencing reform.