Justice and Due Process

Was Gabby Petito’s Death Preventable? The Answer has a Lot to do With Bail

Moab police were called to a domestic violence incident between Gabby Petito and her boyfriend a mere two weeks before he strangled her to death. Many have questioned whether a stronger intervention by Moab police could have saved her life. 

This question has been brought into stark relief by a wrongful death suit brought by Gabby’s survivors. The suit alleges that “the police investigation was deeply flawed,” and that “Gabby would still be alive if the police officers had competently and properly investigated Brian Laundrie’s reported abuse and enforced Utah’s laws that were designed to remove the officers’ discretion to disregard abuse.”

The suit is referring to a provision in Utah law that provides that they shall arrest or shall issue a citation if they believe an act of domestic violence has been committed. Unlike most crimes, action is not discretionary. 

But would arresting Brian have saved Gabby?

Pictured: Brian Laundrie (Left) / Gabby Petito (Left), Brian Laundrie (Right)

One can’t venture an educated guess without considering what would have happened after arrest.

Historically, once someone was taken to jail, monetary bail would be set. If you or your family could pay, you could get out. This created unjust and unsafe scenarios where indigent defendants who had committed minor crimes could end up being held and wealthy people who had committed dangerous crimes could be released. 

Brian and his family weren’t impoverished and he likely would have been bailed out pretty quickly. This probably wouldn’t have given Gabby adequate time to make a plan and get somewhere safe, especially given that she was traveling alone with Brian and far from any family support. 

However, in the year preceding Gabby’s death, Utah had moved away from monetary bail and toward a risk-based bail system. Under this system, most people are released from jail with non-monetary conditions designed to maximize safety and minimize the risk of flight. A person may have to take random drug tests, abide by a protective order, wear an ankle monitor, or surrender weapons to police.

Pictured: Gabby Petito

Conversely, under narrowly defined circumstances where the defendant poses a significant safety or flight risk, they can be held without bail. One of those circumstances is when a defendant is accused of a domestic violence offense, there is substantial evidence to support the charge, and the court finds the defendant would pose a substantial danger to the alleged victim if released. 

In short, had police arrested Brian, a judge could have issued a no-bail hold. This would have given Gabby time to get perspective and resources from family and friends, enabling her to get out of a dangerous relationship. 

Utah has had several significant bail reforms over the last two years, trying to strike the correct balance between community safety and protecting the rights of the accused. Finding this balance will continue to be a process. However, one lesson that can be drawn from the tragic case of Gabby Petito, is the need for bail to be firmly rooted in risk, not ability to pay.