Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
A federal appeals court has upheld New Mexico’s bail bond reforms that limit the use of monetary bail bonds and have put many bonding companies out of business, ruling that a lawsuit by four legislators, the Bail Bond Association of New Mexico and one criminal defendant was frivolous.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld sanctions against A. Blair Dunn, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, with Judge Mary Briscoe writing, “Again, we employ an objective standard intended to eliminate any ’empty-head pure-heart’ justification for patently frivolous arguments.”
Barring further appeals, the decision would appear to put an end to the legal wrangling over the new system put in place after voters in November 2016 approved a constitutional amendment that specifically allowed defendants to be held in jail without bail until trial if they are found to be a danger to the community. It also said inmates who are not a risk could be released from custody even if they couldn’t afford a monetary bond.
The combination essentially dried up most business for bail bondsmen in the state, who at one point aggressively marketed around courthouses with catchy phrases like, “You Ring, We Spring.”
The challenge by bail bondsmen was heard by Senior U.S. District Judge Robert A. Junell of Texas, who ruled that all but one of the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the lawsuit and all of the claims were barred by long-standing legal principles.
The rules for the new pretrial release system were drawn up by the state Supreme Court after the amendment was approved.
The suit also challenged the system developed by lower courts to determine who would be eligible for pretrial release and who should be held in jail pending trial.
The lawsuit was filed by Darlene Collins, a criminal defendant who spent five days in jail before she was released by a judge. Prior to the constitutional amendment, she could have been released on monetary bond posted by a bail bond company.
The charges against Collins were later dismissed by prosecutors.
Collins was joined by the bail bond association and the four state legislators: Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española; Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington; Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho; and former Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe.
They sued the state Supreme Court and each of its members, the Second Judicial Court in Albuquerque, members of the Metropolitan Court, the Bernalillo County Commission and Bernalillo County.
Junell ruled that Collins had standing but could not overcome judicial and state immunity based on her claims.
The ruling said other claims made by the bail bond association and legislators “against the state courts and individual defendants, in their official capacities, are barred by sovereign immunity; that plaintiffs’ claims against the state court judges and court executives, in their individual capacities, are barred by judicial immunity; that plaintiffs’ claims against the state Supreme Court justices, in their individual capacities, are barred by legislative immunity; and that plaintiffs failed to state a claim.”
Briscoe wrote the decision, which also upheld Junell’s sanctions against Dunn.
Dunn was ordered to pay the $14,868 in attorney’s fees and costs, Junell ruled, because the legislator plaintiffs and bail bond association “ha[d] no objectively reasonable basis for asserting standing to sue” and their claims for money damages against state judges were “frivolous.”
“When we analyze the frivolity of an attorney’s arguments, it is not sufficient for an offending attorney to allege that a competent attorney could have made a colorable claim based on the facts and law at issue; the offending attorney must actually present a colorable claim.”
Dunn said in a statement, “Apparently the judiciary is still intent on penalizing anyone that has the audacity to challenge the judiciary and tell the judges that they got it wrong. …”