Gary Bullock is being held on $1 million bail in the slaying of the Rev. Eric Freed inside the rectory of St. Bernard Catholic Church in Eureka.
Bullock had been held in jail New Year's Eve on a disorderly conduct charge, but he was released shortly after midnight.
Humboldt County sheriff's Lt. Steve Knight says that is standard procedure.
Police Chief Andrew Mills says an officer who confronted Bullock in front of the rectory a couple hours later found he was sober and mentally competent to be in public, so had no choice but to send him on his way.
Hours later, Freed was found dead.