NM Supreme Court strikes down attempt to weaken bail reform

Defense lawyer sees decision as reinforcing argument against ‘rebuttable presumptions’

By: - July 5, 2022 5:00 am

The New Mexico Supreme Court. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

If New Mexico prosecutors want to throw someone in jail while they await trial, they must have evidence that the person is dangerous and that no conditions of release will protect others from them — they cannot simply rely on information about the alleged crime, the New Mexico Supreme Court concluded in an opinion issued Thursday.

The Supreme Court unanimously concluded that if it allowed New Mexico prosecutors to send someone to jail until trial based only on the circumstances of what is said to have happened, it “would all but eliminate” the burden on the state to prove that someone is too dangerous to hold onto their freedom, Chief Justice Michael Vigil wrote.

New Mexico voters set that burden of proof in a 2016 amendment to the state constitution. Thursday’s decision upholds that status quo, but it’s also a positive development, said Jonathan Ibarra, vice president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

Ibarra is a public defender, former prosecutor, and former district court judge in Bernalillo County who has served on five different New Mexico Supreme Court committees, including the Pretrial Release Committee, the official panel that considers any reforms to pretrial release procedures in New Mexico’s criminal courts.

The decision will apply across New Mexico, Ibarra said. The rules around pre-trial detention remain accurate and in place, Ibarra said.

Before this decision, the rules already said that prosecutors must prove that there are no conditions of release that can reasonably assure the safety of the community.

Along with that, the decision gives better direction to district courts about what’s required for the state to prove their cases, Ibarra said.

“I think it’ll make it clearer for the judges going forward that there has to be some type of evidence to say that they can’t comply with conditions of release,” Ibarra said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they must have prior criminal history — the circumstances of the case is something a judge can account for — “but they have to have something,” Ibarra said.

There are cases where the state has filed for pre-trial detention on people for whom there’s no evidence that they cannot comply with conditions of release, Ibarra said.

“They do that all the time,” Ibarra said.

The case at issue in the Supreme Court’s ruling is one of them. Jesse Mascareno-Haidle had no adult criminal history, Ibarra said, and there was no indication that he couldn’t comply with conditions of release.

The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office twice tried to detain Mascareno-Haidle after he was arrested in separate cases of alleged robberies in Albuquerque in 2021.

Two different judges denied those requests, and prosecutors appealed the second judge’s decision, which was upheld by the state Court of Appeals. Prosecutors then asked the Supreme Court to review the case.

The DA’s argument was that the nature of the charges against Mascareno-Haidle alone is enough to say that there are no reasonable conditions for release, Ibarra said.

In his petition to the Supreme Court, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez wrote that his office proved that Mascareno-Haidle “habitually violates the law, habitually endangers homeowners, and habitually gratifies his thrill to burglarize occupied homes at the expense of community safety.”

The second judge’s decision in favor of Mascareno-Haidle “reflects a misunderstanding of the law,” Torrez wrote.

But the Supreme Court said no, and that the case law and rules already in place mean something, Ibarra said.

The Supreme Court justices wrote that prosecutors “failed to present any evidence or make any argument that no release conditions could be imposed to reasonably protect the safety of any other person or the community.”

That left the judge “with no alternative but to deny the state’s motion to detain defendant,” they wrote.

Two judges said Mascareno-Haidle should get the chance to comply with those conditions. Ultimately he did not, and he was in jail as of Friday.

“But that’s how the system is supposed to work,” Ibarra said.

While the Supreme Court’s decision applies across New Mexico, Ibarra said he thinks judges outside of Bernalillo County are not being asked by prosecutors as often to make these kinds of decisions.

Misinformation about pretrial detention

The formal opinion was published Thursday, but the Supreme Court announced its decision from the bench after hearing oral arguments in the case last year.

It is still important for the public to know about the opinion now because the public often gets misinformation from various sources about when judges are releasing people in other cases, Ibarra said.

For example, a few months ago, Ibarra was representing the man who crashed into a school bus in Albuquerque. The judge found him to be a danger but said there was no evidence he couldn’t comply with conditions of release.

“So the judge was taking heat in the media, on Facebook, and social media, for releasing my client, even though legally, she absolutely positively had to do what she did,” Ibarra said. “It was the DAs who put her in that position, knowing they didn’t have any evidence that he couldn’t comply with conditions of release. And so instead, she has to look bad.”

Cases like that happen all the time, Ibarra said, where a prosecutor loses a detention hearing because they can’t prove that someone can’t comply with release conditions, “and then the DA can just blame the judges.”

Potential bulwark against future attacks on bail reform

Going forward, the decision potentially impacts what some lawmakers and prosecutors — including District Attorney Raul Torrez — have tried to do about rebuttable presumptions.

Earlier this year, Torrez, lawmakers and other prosecutors tried to pass a bill that would have required defendants to prove that they are not too dangerous to release before a trial.

The bill ultimately failed after pushback from public defenders and criminal justice advocates who said if passed, they would challenge its constitutionality.

The Supreme Court’s decision supports their position that such a change in the law would be unconstitutional, Ibarra said.

“I do think that it impacts the idea that we can change the statute or create a statute to say, ‘Not only do certain conditions make a person dangerous, but that they also can’t comply with conditions of release,’” Ibarra said. “I think it’s very clear that that’s not constitutional.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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