The state Supreme Court in two opinions filed Thursday gave state district judges guidance on how they should proceed in determining when felony defendants can be held in jail before trial – generally giving judges more leeway to keep people accused of serious crimes behind bars.
In one case, the court ruled that defendants charged with a capital crime don’t have a right to pretrial release and also said that a defendant’s failure to obey previous court orders while on pretrial release can justify pretrial detention.
A second opinion handed down Thursday reiterated the court’s earlier oral ruling that prosecutors can present evidence without calling witnesses in pretrial detention hearings.
In a ruling issued in late December, the court also said a defendant can be detained based on the gruesome nature of the crimes charged.
All three cases involve high-profile defendants:
- Elexus Groves, 21, who is charged with recklessly driving a stolen van and crashing into another car, killing a teenage girl and fatally injuring her mother.
- Paul Salas, 47, who was charged with 47 armed robberies in Albuquerque over the course of five months in 2016 and 2017 and confessed to the crimes when arrested.
- Mariah Ferry, 19, who is one of two people charged in the death of 41-year-old John Soyka, whose mutilated body was found near the Rio Puerco last fall.
The amendment allows judges to keep dangerous defendants in custody without bail as they await trial. But it also makes clear that people can’t be held just because they’re too poor to post bail, assuming they’re not dangerous or a flight risk.
Since last year, the high court has been providing guidance through written court rules and opinions on how judges should implement the 2016 amendment to the state Constitution that reduced the justice system’s reliance on monetary bail and allowed judges to consider pretrial detention or craft pretrial release orders for less dangerous defendants. The court has said bail bonds should be used primarily for defendants considered to be a flight risk.
Gov. Susana Martinez and some lawmakers have criticized the way the amendment has been implemented by judges and have called for the Legislature to step in and make it easier to keep defendants in jail as they await trial – ending what they call a catch-and-release practice that leads to more crime and endangers the community.
Rules for hearings
The longest opinion issued Thursday restated the court’s oral ruling made last year that prosecutors can present evidence without calling witnesses and that the normal rules of evidence used in trials don’t apply to pretrial detention hearings.
That was a victory for prosecutors, who complained that defense attorneys wanted to turn the detention hearings into mini-trials.
The Supreme Court overturned a decision by District Judge Stan Whitaker that evidence provided by prosecutors to detain Paul Salas was unreliable because it wasn’t supported by the testimony of officers at a pretrial detention hearing.
Whitaker refused a request by the district attorney to hold Salas without bail. Salas already was being held on $100,000 bail for an out-of-state felony warrant, and Whitaker ordered separate $100,000 bail on the armed robbery charges.
Justice Charles Daniels wrote in the opinion issued Thursday that the officers’ testimony was not necessary and that state and federal courts around the country have found that the rules of evidence that are used in full-blown trials are not to be used in detention hearings. The Supreme Court suggested judges look to the federal court system for an example of how pretrial detention works there.
Salas is in jail awaiting trial.
Guarding others’ safety
Daniels also wrote the court’s opinion upholding District Judge Brett Loveless’ ruling – appealed by the defense – that no conditions of pretrial release would reasonably protect the safety of others in ordering that Elexus Groves be held in jail pending trial.
Groves faces two counts of felony murder, along with lesser charges. She is charged with leading police on a chase in a stolen van that crashed into a car, killing a 14-year-old girl and fatally injuring her mother.
District Judge Cindy Leos issued an order denying bail at an arraignment hearing in February. Weeks later, during a hearing to review a defense request to release Groves on conditions, Loveless raised the point that he believed Groves was not entitled to bail under the Constitution before it was amended.
Loveless, who kept Groves behind bars, also noted that she was out of jail on conditions of release on a felony charge in Sandoval County at the time of the crimes charged in Bernalillo County.
Groves’ attorney argued in the appeal that the denial of bail was arbitrary and based on an “incorrect standard of law.”
The Supreme Court disagreed.
“In the record before the district court in this case, the totality of Defendant’s conduct fully justifies the district court’s determination that she presented an unacceptable risk of continued endangerment of the public in the same manner if released, a determination well within the bounds of reason and the proper exercise of judicial discretion,” Daniels wrote.
The court said that in setting conditions of release, “we require that judges consider available information, exercise reason and make thoughtful judgments.”
The justices were less accepting of a ruling by Loveless to allow Mariah Ferry, 19, to be released pending trial on murder and kidnapping charges in the death of John Soyka, 41, last fall.
In that case, Justice Edward L. Chavez wrote that the court was confused by Loveless’ written findings in allowing Ferry to be released under court-ordered conditions.
The Supreme Court ordered Loveless to rewrite the order, and Chavez wrote in the opinion that a judge can consider the gruesome nature of the underlying crime when determining if someone should be released pending trial.