Pre-trial Detention Discovery: Part 1

by | Jun 13, 2017 | Blog, Criminal Law, Legal Procedures

On May, 10, 2017, a divided New Jersey Supreme Court decided the case of Habeeb Robinson.  Chief Justice Rabner authored the majority opinion. In this appeal, the Court considers the newly enacted Criminal Justice Reform Act for the first time and addresses the type and scope of discovery the State must provide when it seeks to detain a defendant pretrial.

The Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA), N.J.S.A. 2A:162-15 to -26, has three principal components. First, it allows for pretrial detention of defendants who present such a serious risk of danger, flight, or obstruction that no combination of release conditions would be adequate.  Second, it replaced the system’s prior heavy reliance on monetary bail and instead calls for an objective evaluation of risk level and consideration of conditions of release. Finally, the Act establishes statutory speedy trial deadlines. The CJRA took effect on January 1, 2017.

N.J.S.A. 2A:162-18(a) authorizes the court to order pretrial detention if it finds by clear and convincing evidence that no conditions of release would reasonably assure a defendant’s appearance in court, the safety of the community, and the integrity of the criminal justice process. A rebuttable presumption of detention exists when the court finds probable cause for murder or a crime subject to life imprisonment. N.J.S.A. 2A:162-19(b).

When a prosecutor applies for pretrial detention, the defendant is held pending a hearing. N.J.S.A. 2A:162- 19(d)(2). “In pretrial detention proceedings for which there is no indictment, the prosecutor shall establish probable cause that the eligible defendant committed the predicate offense.”  N.J.S.A. 2A:162-19(e)(2).  A defendant can rebut a presumption of detention, when one applies, by a preponderance of the evidence. Ibid. If a court orders detention, its decision must be supported by clear and convincing evidence.  N.J.S.A. 2A:162-19(e)(3).

At the hearing, “the court may take into account”: (a) “the nature and circumstances of the offense charged; (b) [t]he weight of the evidence against the eligible defendant”; (c) the defendant’s “history and characteristics”; (d) the danger posed by release; (e) the risk of obstruction of justice; “and (f) the release recommendation” of the Public Safety Assessment (PSA) prepared under N.J.S.A. 2A:162-25. N.J.S.A. 2A:162-20.

After the Legislature enacted the CJRA, the Court asked the Criminal Practice Committee to propose amendments to the court rules. The Committee divided sharply about the amount and type of discovery that should be required for pretrial detention hearings. The Court struck a compromise: “if the prosecutor is seeking pretrial detention, the prosecutor shall provide the defendant with all statements or reports in its possession relating to the pretrial detention application.  All exculpatory evidence must be disclosed.”  R. 3:4-2(c)(1)(B). It is a safe bet that the members of the criminal practice committee representing the government took the hardline as a standard negotiating tactic. By taking an unreasonable position at the start, any future compromise will create a rule that is as supportive of their position as possible.