NJ Justices Set Path To Release Detainees Amid Outbreak

By Julia Arciga
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Law360 (February 11, 2021, 4:29 PM EST) -- The New Jersey Supreme Court on Thursday outlined a process by which certain pretrial detainees could reopen their detention hearings amid the ongoing suspension of criminal jury trials due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his opinion, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said defendants who have been detained for at least six months could make a preliminary showing to claim they are entitled to a new detention hearing based on factors like: the length of their detentions, their health risks, the possibility of a plea offer and the likelihood their current detention has been longer than their sentence if convicted, among others.

According to the opinion, the judge who conducted the original detention hearing — or another judge in the same vicinity — may proceed over these new detention hearings on an expedited basis. Defendants who have a "presumption of detention," like those charged with murder or facing a life sentence, will "likely not" be eligible for new hearings, wrote Chief Justice Rabner.

This new process was established after the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the state's Office of the Public Defender asked the court to take steps in releasing certain defendants in December.

They specifically requested the release of all defendants who have been detained six months or longer and who only face charges from a second-degree offense or lower, and they pushed for the court to grant new detention hearings to all defendants detained for six months or longer and who face charges from a first-degree offense. At the time, the public defender's office said over 1,000 defendants were eligible for release or new detention hearings if the court granted their requested relief.

However, the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey and the New Jersey Attorney General's Office argued against the requests in a hearing last month, stating that such relief could only be provided if the court deemed the state's 2014 Criminal Justice Reform Act unconstitutional — which they claimed would be an improper ruling.

Chief Justice Rabner's Thursday opinion recognized that the current coronavirus pandemic had "created an ongoing health crisis" for many populations, including those in prison, but wrote that broad relief for large defendant categories would not be appropriate. He said that factors beyond detention duration needed to be considered, and specific inquiries into each defendant would be best to properly assess risk level.

"Once again, cases are best examined on an individual basis," the opinion read. "For those reasons, we find that the constitutional remedies movants propose ... are not well-suited for the current circumstances."

"In sum, although we recognize that individual cases may present due process concerns, we believe the ... remedies proposed are too broad," the opinion continued.

In a statement, the ACLU of New Jersey said they were "gratified that the court recognized a desperate need to address the crisis in the criminal courts precipitated by the pandemic."

"With this ruling, the court will ensure that people have some way to challenge their prolonged confinement in an unprecedented environment in which trials — the engine that propels the criminal system forward — have ground to a halt," the Thursday statement read. "We'll continue to work to make sure that, especially during this health crisis, people are held in jail pretrial only when a judge finds that it is absolutely necessary."

Justices Jaynee Lavecchia, Barry T. Albin, Anne Murray Patterson, Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina, Lee A. Solomon and Fabiana Pierre-Louis joined Chief Justice Rabner's opinion.

The ACLU of New Jersey is represented in-house by Alexander Shalom and Jeanne LoCicero.

The New Jersey Office of the Public Defender is represented in-house by Joseph E. Krakora, Joseph J. Russo, Alison Perrone, Laura B. Lasota and Elizabeth C. Jarit.

The County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey is represented by Anthony Robinson, Jessica Marshall, Paul H. Heinzel and John McNamara Jr.

New Jersey Attorney General's Office is represented by Deputy Attorneys General Claudia Joy Demitro, Jennifer E. Kmieciak and Mercedes N. Robertson.

The case is In the Matter of the Request to Release Certain Pretrial Detainees, case number M-550-20, 085186, before the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

--Additional reporting by Bill Wichert and Justin Wise. Editing by Andrew Cohen.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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