Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
The chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court said state court judges have discretion – and are not bound by specific rules requiring that witnesses testify, for example – in deciding whether a defendant should be held without bail pending trial.
Chief Justice Charles Daniels also said judges should consider whether there is probable cause that a person committed a crime before the suspect is detained pending trial. And he cited specific cases in other states concerning pretrial detention orders and guidelines that judges have used in federal court to make similar decisions.
Those guidelines do not require witnesses in most cases when a judge determines whether to hold a person without bail.
Daniels announced the unanimous opinion from the state’s five justices from the bench on Wednesday after hearing arguments throughout the day about the rules that should govern proceedings in which prosecutors seek to have a defendant kept in jail until trial. He said the court would be issuing more detailed and written opinions soon about detention hearings.
Raúl Torrez, the district attorney in Bernalillo County, filed a petition last month asking the state’s highest court what prosecutors should or shouldn’t be required to do during the hearings. He said that in courts in Bernalillo County, which is by far the biggest and busiest judicial district in the state, some judges have required prosecutors to call witnesses and essentially put on “mini-trials” when considering whether to have a suspect detained pending trial.
“I think we’ve taken a big step in the right direction,” he said after the hearing.
Holding suspects without bail is a new concept in New Mexico. Voters last year overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment that allows judges to hold certain defendants without bail if prosecutors can show there is “clear and convincing” evidence that the suspect would be a threat to the public if they were released from custody while awaiting trial. Previously, judges could hold defendants without bail only in certain murder cases.
“You can’t reduce these things to a computer program,” Daniels said from the bench. “That’s why we have judges who make judgments.”
The amendment also said bail for most defendants should be set at an amount they could afford. Daniels said he expects there to be some growing pains as state courts work to make sure defendants in jail are those who are a danger to the public, and not simply those unable to put up the money to be released.
Justices heard arguments on two separate cases in which prosecutors tried to have Albuquerque suspects held without bail. One was Torrez’s petition, and the other was an appeal from Elexus Groves, who is being held on two felony murder and other charges for a fatal crash during a chase with police that left a 14-year-old girl and her mother dead. Her appeal was denied.
Torrez’s petition cited two specific criminal cases in which District Judge Stan Whitaker denied a request to have the defendants held until trial. One defendant, Paul Salas, is accused of robbing more than 50 Albuquerque businesses in five months. The other defendant allegedly shot his pregnant girlfriend.
During the detention proceedings, Whitaker asked prosecutors to call a police investigator to testify about the evidence. Prosecutors didn’t call any witnesses, and Whitaker refused to order that the men be held until their trial.
Daniels said that in certain cases judges may need to ask for more testimony or evidence to hold a defendant without bail.
“There is no one-size-fits-all rule. These are decisions made in individual cases involving individual human beings and varying circumstances,” Daniels said. “To say that a judge must always have eyewitnesses or never have eyewitnesses is inconsistent with the very thought of case-by-case adjudication.”
Torrez said the court’s ruling was a win for prosecutors around the state.
“There’s no bright-line rule on one side or the other, and there’s a discretionary act that has to take place,” he said. “Our chief complaint was the idea that there was going to be a bright-line rule that we could not proceed without a live witness. And I think a big part of what we were concerned about was, frankly, the manpower and resources when we have to take people in a police department or law enforcement agency that is stretched very thin and take them off active investigations and bring them into court.”
Jason Wheeless, Salas’ attorney, acknowledged that it’s easier for federal court prosecutors to hold defendants without bail pending trial compared with New Mexico state courts. But he did not believe that standard should be extended to state court.
“For those of us who value civil liberties and value the protections we have in New Mexico against government action, it’s really frightening,” Wheeless said. “What it indicates is that today in New Mexico the average person has less protection against the government then they did yesterday.”
Torrez said that this year his office has moved to have about 70 defendants detained until trial, but his office has been successful in those detention hearings about one-third of the time. His office has filed charges against about 800 inmates in the same time, so he said he’s seeking detention orders against only the most dangerous defendants.