Criminal Law:

Booking and Bail


Following an arrest, a criminal suspect is typically taken into police custody and "booked," or "processed." During this process, a police officer typically:

  • Takes the criminal suspect's personal information
  • Sets down information about the suspect's alleged crime
  • Does a records search of the suspect's criminal background
  • Fingerprints, photographs, and searches the suspect
  • Takes away any personal property carried by the suspect (i.e., keys, purse), to be returned upon the suspect's release
  • Places the suspect in a police station holding cell or local jail

It should be noted that persons arrested for minor offenses may merely be given a written citation and released, after signing the citation and promising to appear in court at a later date.

For criminal suspects who are placed in jail, the first priority is usually getting out. Except when very serious crimes are charged, a suspect usually can obtain pre-trial release through bail or "own recognizance" release.


To determine what is needed to ensure a defendant's appearance at trial, a judge or magistrate examines the nature and circumstances of the charges, with particular scrutiny of whether the offense involves violence or narcotic drugs. The court may inquire into the nature and value of any property that might be offered as collateral. It also examines the weight of the evidence against the defendant, whether the person was on parole or probation at the time of the present arrest, the nature and seriousness of danger to others in the community, and evidence of the defendant's character. When examining the history and character of a person, the court may examine:

  • Physical and mental condition
  • Financial resources
  • Family ties
  • History relating to drug and alcohol abuse
  • Criminal history
  • Record concerning appearance at court proceedings
  • Length of residence in the community

Where a defendant poses a threat to the safety of the community, he or she may be held without bail. In other situations, federal law typically requires that a defendant in a federal criminal case be released on personal recognizance or upon execution of an unsecured appearance bond. Released defendants must not commit any crimes during the period of release. However, if a court determines that personal recognizance or an unsecured appearance bond will not reasonably assure the defendant's appearance, or determines that the safety of a person or the community is endangered, a defendant may be released upon conditions. Federal law delineates a number of conditions that may be imposed. Defendants may be required to:

  • Limit travel
  • Maintain or seek employment
  • Undergo drug and alcohol testing
  • Undergo medical, psychiatric, or psychological treatment
  • Maintain or start an educational program
  • Comply with a curfew
  • Refrain from excessive use of alcohol or any use of narcotic drugs
  • Remain in the custody of a designated person
  • Comply with periodic check-ins with authorities
  • Refrain from possession of a firearm
  • Refrain from contact with crime victim or others designated by the court
  • Execute a bond agreement with the court or a solvent surety in an amount as is reasonably necessary to ensure the defendant's appearance
  • Agree to other reasonable conditions the court may impose to ensure a defendant's appearance

Both the defendant and the government may appeal an adverse bail decision. The scope of review is limited, however. The only question for an appellate court is whether the trial court abused its discretion.