New Mexico Court Holds Bail Cannot be Based Solely on Nature of Charged Offense

The New Mexico Supreme Court has clarified the process for determining what bail conditions may be imposed on a criminal defendant. The court held that it is an abuse of discretion for a court to set bail based solely on the nature and seriousness of the charged offense.

In State v. Brown, the trial judge set bail at $250,000, stating his decision was based solely on the nature and seriousness of the charged offense. While the defendant was charged with first-degree murder, he had proven that the non-monetary conditions of his release ensured he was not a flight or safety risk.

Brown, nineteen years old, had strong ties with the community and had the support of both parents. The non-monetary conditions for his release included a GPS monitoring bracelet, living with his father, maintaining regular contact with pre-trial services, and maintaining employment at a diner. A psychologist with pre-trial services testified that the “defendant exhibits none of the factors typically correlated with dangerousness or a risk of flight.” Nonetheless, $250,000 bail was imposed, and Brown, unable to post it , spent two years in pre-trial custody.

New Mexico, similar to Washington, provides a constitutional right to bail. Two exceptions exist: if a person is charged with a capital offense and the proof is evident or the presumption great; and if the defendant is charged with a felony and has a history of felony offenses. Still, to deny bail based on one of these exceptions, the trial court must first provide the defendant with a right to counsel, notice, and opportunity to be heard.

In its opinion, the New Mexico Supreme Court detailed the history of bail, starting with its roots in medieval England. At its inception, bail matched the monetary penalty for the crime—if the defendant failed to appear, the victim received the same compensation as if he had appeared and been found guilty. The English later imposed criteria for determining whether a person should be released on bail, which included the strength of evidence against the accused and the accused’s criminal history. The right to pre-trial release was widely adopted into state and federal law in the United States.

However, in the modern era, concerns about the right to bail were raised when studies showed that monetary bail discriminated against the poor. Studies have found that “the defendants who remain in custody pending trial stay in jail because they cannot afford the bail set by the court, not because they have been denied bail altogether.”

New Mexico has a “presumption of release” and requires that a court set the least restrictive conditions with an emphasis on methods that do not require financial security. Judges must consider the defendant’s flight risk, danger posed to others by the defendant’s release, nature of offense charged, weight of evidence against the defendant; and the defendant’s history and characteristics. This mirrors Washington’s approach to setting bail with the least restrictive conditions.

The New Mexico court said, “Whenever possible, the court should dispense with the requirement of any financial security and should release the defendant either on the defendant’s personal recognizance or upon the execution of an unsecured appearance bond in an amount set by the court.” A court may impose a secured bond only if it makes a specific finding that non-financial release options will not ensure appearance or will endanger the safety of others.

In the case at hand, the supreme court held that the trial judge had abused his discretion by failing to balance the factors set out by statute and by failing to impose the least restrictive of bail options. It reasoned that “neither the Constitution nor our rules of criminal procedure permit a judge to base a pre-trial release decision solely on the severity of the charged offense.” This is a significant ruling for those facing charges of serious offenses, such as rape or child abuse, because the court cannot base conditions of their pre-trial release on the charges’ nature.

The court added, “Intentionally setting bail so high as to be unattainable is simply a less honest method of unlawfully denying bail altogether.”