Serving the High Plains

State Supreme Court issues new guidance on pretrial detention

The New Mexico Supreme Court, in the wake of a case involving an Albuquerque man accused of murder, issued an opinion last week that provides guidance to district courts in deciding pretrial detention requests from prosecutors.

The justices clarified the analysis that courts should follow in determining whether legal requirements have been met for a person charged with a felony should be held in jail while awaiting trial.

Under state law, a felony defendant may be detained if prosecutors file a motion and prove in district court the suspect is dangers and that “no release conditions will reasonably protect the safety of any other person or the community.”

The high court’s opinion provides the reasoning for an order by the justices in February that reversed a district court’s denial of a motion for pretrial detention of Joe Anderson, a Bernalillo County man charged with first-degree murder.

The justices ruled the district court abused its discretion in denying the prosecution’s detention request and that it had followed the wrong analytical framework in making its determination.

“In this case, ample evidence showed that the Defendant was unlikely to comply with release conditions and that the public would be put at significant risk should he fail to comply with release conditions,” the court wrote in an opinion by Justice Briana H. Zamora.

According to the Albuquerque Journal, Anderson already had served time in prison after being convicted in a 2010 homicide and had shown a poor record dating back nearly two decades of complying with court orders.

After his release, Anderson’s GPS ankle monitor was found by the side of the road, and police apprehended him weeks later.

District courts must undertake a two-pronged analysis in pretrial detention decision-making, according to a news release from the high court.

The first is determining whether the defendant is dangerous, and the second prong is whether the state has proven there are no conditions or restrictions that can be imposed on a defendant – if released – to reasonably protect the public.

In analyzing both prongs, district courts must consider a range of factors outlined in a rule of criminal procedure governing pretrial detention. Those factors include the “nature and circumstances” of the charged crime, the defendant’s history and the “nature and seriousness of the danger to any person or the community that would be posed by the defendant’s release.”

“All factors are relevant to both prongs because a defendant’s dangerousness is not an entirely separate consideration from whether release conditions can reasonably protect the safety of the public; rather, the nature of the defendant’s dangerousness informs whether the public can be kept reasonably safe from that danger by the imposition of release conditions,” the court wrote. “Thus, if a district court applies the Rule 5-409 factors and determines that a defendant is dangerous, it should not cordon off those facts that it considered in the dangerousness analysis and limit itself solely to the evidence that it did not yet consider in order to rule on release conditions.”

District courts should take a “holistic, commonsense approach” in the analysis about possible release conditions, the justices explained.

“This second prong of the pretrial detention analysis, like the first prong of dangerousness, must be proven by clear and convincing evidence. However, the State must only prove that no release conditions can reasonably protect the public, not that no release conditions can possibly protect the public,” the court wrote.

As part of its analysis, “the district court must consider not only whether a defendant is likely to comply with release conditions but also the likely consequences to any person or the community should a defendant fail to comply,” the Court explained.

“That additional inquiry is related to, and must be viewed in light of, the magnitude of a defendant’s dangerousness,” the court stated. “For example, a defendant with a history of violent crimes who stands accused of a new violent crime may pose a significant and unjustifiable risk to the safety of any person or the community if the defendant fails to comply with release conditions.”

The court made clear that district courts cannot “rely solely on the charged offense to order a defendant’s detention.”

A district court “must always conduct a totality of the circumstances analysis in reaching a decision” on a motion for the pretrial detention of a felony defendant, the court emphasized.

Tenth Judicial District Attorney Tim Rose hailed the high court’s decision.

“The problem has been the Supreme Court Rules that were adopted that has made it unreasonably difficult for courts to detain dangerous defendants,” Rose wrote in an email. “I am glad that the Supreme Court, through the issuance of this opinion, has effectively modified its rules to allow our judges more discretion to determine who is dangerous and subject to pretrial detention.”

 
 
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