COVID and Pretrial Release (Part 3)

by | Mar 25, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

Chief Justice Rabner continued with the following in relevant part: *Defendants who have been detained for at least six months, and can make a preliminary showing that they are entitled to relief based on one or more of the above factors, have the right to reopen their detention hearings under section 19(f). Trial judges have discretion to resolve motions that do not meet both conditions without holding a hearing. Hearings should be conducted on an expedited basis in the trial court, and reviewed in the same manner on appeal. Defendants subject to a presumption of detention — those charged with murder or facing a sentence of life imprisonment — will likely not be eligible for new hearings.

Movants concede the CJRA is constitutional but argue that continued detention raises potentially serious due process concerns. The pretrial detention process is constitutional so long as it serves regulatory rather than punitive purposes. But if pretrial detention under a regulatory scheme is significantly prolonged, a defendant’s confinement may become punitive. Whether the length of detention violates due process in that way requires assessment on a case-by-case basis; due process is a flexible concept that does not necessarily set a bright line limit for length of pretrial confinement.

The CJRA contains various time limits designed to move cases toward trial. The Court does not find that the pandemic, along with the accompanying suspension of in person criminal jury trials, has transformed the CJRA’s overall approach to pretrial detention into a punitive scheme. Yet individual cases, which are not the subject of the Order to Show Cause, can be subject to challenge on due process grounds. The length of detention alone is not dispositive. A more comprehensive, fact-specific inquiry in each case is needed, and relief tied only to the length of detention for large categories of defendants would not be appropriate for a variety of reasons. Cases are best examined on an individual basis, which the CJRA provides for under the present circumstances. The constitutional remedies movants propose — judicial surgery and the Court’s rulemaking authority — are thus not well-suited for the current circumstances.

Allowing trial courts to resolve motions without a hearing is likely born out of recognition that many judges and court staff are working from home during the pandemic. Conducting hearings under those circumstances can be complicated. Also, the criminal justice system is so backlogged with cases due to COVID-related delays that most any measure that saves time and resources is favored by our courts.