Innocent Until Proven Guilty, But Only If You Can Pay

“I did something stupid, and something I shouldn’t have done” are the first words of Bill Peyser’s tale of how he ended up getting arrested and jailed for the first time in his life at the age of 73.

Peyser, a San Francisco cab driver, says he had been frustrated with a couple of noisy younger neighbors in the spring of 2017. Exhausted and angry after a sleepless night that had led to him skipping a day of work, he decided to confront them on the afternoon of April 17.

The “something stupid” that Peyser agrees he shouldn’t have done was to bring a .22-caliber handgun with him when he went to their apartment.

Though the men did not answer the door when Peyser repeatedly kicked it, they saw him through the peephole and called the police. There was no direct confrontation, but as Peyser was leaving, he fired the gun by accident while trying to uncock it in the hallway. According to one of Peyer’s attorneys, the bullet lodged in a wall in the lobby of the building a few inches off the floor. Nobody was hurt.

The police came and arrested Peyser. Peyser explained what happened, but he says police refused to believe it was an accident and insisted he was trying to harm his neighbors. He says he was prepared to plead guilty to what he had done—brandishing a weapon. But when he was brought before the court, he found he was being charged with attempted murder, two counts of assault with a semi-automatic firearm, and discharging a firearm at an inhabited dwelling.

What happened to Peyser next illustrates a chronic problem, one civil rights advocates are attempting to force states and counties to address. Peyser ended up stuck in jail for six months while awaiting his trial not because he was a threat to society—he was a septuagenarian with no criminal record who hadn’t actually injured anyone—but because he didn’t have enough money to pay for bail. Activists argue that cash bail systems violate the rights of people like Peyser who have been charged, but not convicted, of crimes.

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