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State Supreme Court to decide scope of discovery in pretrial detention hearings

As we previously discussed, New Jersey made history back on January 1 when it officially eliminated its cash bail system as a means of preventing indigent, low-risk defendants from having to remain incarcerated owing to their inability to post a cash bond.

The system introduced in its place now calls for anyone taken into custody to receive a pretrial detention hearing within 48 hours of his or her arrest. At this hearing, a judge will consider not only a specially assigned number indicating how likely they are to reoffend or miss their court date, but also arguments offered by defense attorneys or prosecutors as to the necessity of continued detention.

In the event prosecutors seek to have a defendant detained until trial, defense attorneys are entitled to discovery, meaning the legal process by which the state provides the accused and their legal representation with access to the evidence in its possession.

While most have been supportive of the state's bail overhaul efforts, some legal issues have emerged. Indeed, the Supreme Court of New Jersey recently heard oral arguments in a case concerning the extent of the discovery that must be provided to defendants at the pretrial detention hearing.

The case in question is State v. Habeeb Robinson, which revolves around a Newark man taken into custody back in January based on the statements provided by two witnesses regarding his role in a deadly shooting.

During the pretrial hearing, public defenders requested that prosecutors supply the evidence cited in their court documents seeking to have the defendant detained until trial.

While the Essex County Prosecutor's Office supplied an affidavit detailing the evidence and a preliminary report, it refused to supply the actual evidence from surveillance footage to the aforementioned witness statements.

The public defenders argued that this failure to turn over the evidence was a violation of the rules under the new system, an argument with which the presiding judge and an appellate court ultimately agreed, with the latter affirming the decision in February.

The state Attorney General's Office subsequently filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case just last week.

Here, both public defenders and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the new rules require disclosure of any and all evidence at the pretrial hearing, and that it wasn't just defense attorneys who needed broader discovery, but also judges who must make informed decisions about detention requests.

For its part, the AG's office argued that the refusal to hand over evidence boiled down to prosecutors needing to protect witnesses from retaliation or intimidation, or simply not having enough time to review the evidence to ensure they weren't potentially disclosing privileged information owing to the 48-hour window in which a hearing must be held.

It will be interesting to see what the state's high court decides in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned for developments ...

If you are under investigation or have been charged with any manner of criminal offense, consider speaking with a skilled legal professional as soon as possible.

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