We recently passed the first anniversary of criminal justice reform in New Jersey. As discussed regularly on this blog, these far-reaching changes to criminal practice and procedure in the State affect the handling of all criminal cases in the Superior Court. The primary areas that these changes impact upon are bail reform and the speed with which criminal cases progress through the system.
As discussed in previous posts, the new procedures assume those charged with criminal offenses will not be incarcerated pending trial or other case disposition. Prosecutors can, however, seek to detain a defendant while their case is pending before the court. This is accomplished by means of a detention motion filed by the State, which is followed by a detention hearing. After considering, among other things the arguments of counsel and the Public Safety Assessment (the “PSA” – a sort of score sheet that rates the defendant for risk of failure to appear in court in the future and likelihood of committing new offenses), the court decides whether to release the defendant with or without conditions, require the posting of a bail, or detain the defendant without bail. The defendant can appeal an adverse detention decision.
SN was charged with sex offenses. The PSA gave him the lowest possible scores for risk of committing additional offenses and risk of failure to appear, but still recommended detention regardless of the low scores. The State sought pretrial detention, arguing that there was a serious risk that defendant would fail to appear in court, that he was a danger to the community, that he would intimidate the victim, her mother and other witnesses to obstruct justice, and that he was a flight risk because he had relatives living in another country.
Defense counsel argued that the State’s position was speculative at best. Counsel noted further that defendant had no prior record, was employed, had family support, lacked any contact with his foreign relatives, and lived with the victim without any problems until a couple of years ago.
In ordering the defendant detained, the trial court gave great weight to the fact that the defendant was charged with a violent first degree offense that was subject to the State’s No-Early-Release Act, that the defendant had dual citizenship, and that release was not recommended by pretrial services.
On appeal, the Superior Court Appellate Division reversed and ordered the defendant released with conditions. The appellate court found that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to consider the defendant’s age, lack of prior record, and community ties. The court’s conditions included reporting to pretrial services and passport surrender. The court also granted leave to appeal.
On further appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the correct standard of appellate review for pretrial detention decisions is whether the trial court abused its discretion by resting its decision on an impermissible basis, by relying upon inappropriate or irrelevant factors, by failing to consider relevant factors, or by making a clear error in judgment. The court concluded that the trial court that detained SN abused its discretion.
The Supreme Court found, among other things, that the State’s burden to overcome the presumption of pretrial release is substantial because “[i]n our society liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.” The relevant statute describes what a court may consider in deciding to detain a defendant. SN’s characteristics, as he stood before the trial court, were that he was 50 years of age; he had the lowest possible scores for failure to appear and risk of new criminal activity; he had no criminal record; he was employed; and he had strong local community and family ties. While the nature of the charged offense certainly factors into the detention decision, the trial court in this case based its decision almost entirely on the charged offense even though it does not carry a presumption of detention. The court also relied upon unsupported arguments put forth by the State. Thus, the trial court failed to properly consider SN’s characteristics as he stood before it. The detention decision was not entitled to deference because it lacked articulable factual support, and was therefore an abuse of discretion. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court, which was in the best position to set appropriate terms of release.
The problem here is that the Court set the bar for reviewing these decisions at an “abuse of discretion” standard which is very high and often difficult to overcome. It is, however, a certainty that future decisions will provide additional guidance as to how this standard is to be applied in these cases.
James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal defense attorney in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Mr. Friedman represents individuals charged with criminal offenses in all New Jersey State courts, municipal courts throughout New Jersey, the federal district courts located in New Jersey and New York City, and the New York criminal courts located in Manhattan and Brooklyn.