Supreme Court Changes Evidence Rules Under NJ Bail Reform

TRENTON -- New Jersey's highest court on Wednesday enacted new rules requiring prosecutors provide more evidence up-front when they ask a judge to lock someone up under the state's new bail system.

In a 5-2 ruling, the state Supreme Court largely upheld a lower court decision ordering prosecutors in Essex County to cough up witness statements and other evidence against an accused murderer, Habeeb Robinson.

The case was one of several stemming from New Jersey's massive criminal justice overhaul that took effect in January, pitting defense attorneys who said authorities were withholding key evidence against the prosecutors who accused them of turning preliminary hearings into "mini-trials."

The ruling was a blow for prosecutors, who warned it would be difficult for them to quickly turn over key evidence and might undermine active investigations and lead to witness intimidation. Civil liberties advocates praised the court and said the decision would protect defendants under a new system in which they can be thrown in jail with no recourse.

The new system almost entirely did away with cash bail in the Garden State, and now prosecutors must convince a judge to order someone accused of a crime thrown in jail before trial.

When that request is made, the judge holds a pre-trial detention hearing to determine whether a defendant presents enough of a danger or flight risk to be locked up, or whether he or she should be released under a monitoring program run by the courts.

If prosecutors move to have somebody detained, the defense is entitled to discovery, which is the legal term for the process by which the state gives someone accused of a crime access to the evidence against them.

"We now have this system where, in rare instances, the government can say you are so dangerous, present such a risk, that we think you cant be released under any circumstances," said Alexander Shalom, a senior attorney for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "When the government is doing that, they have to make their case. They have to explain, both to the defendant and to the court, why this person is so dangerous"

Under the old system, defendants were only entitled to discovery later in court proceedings, often months after their arrest. But bail reform pushed up that timeline, and the Supreme Court dispute centered on how much discovery a defendant should get immediately after their arrest, when they have a right to due process under the constitution because the judge can now order them held without bail.

In Robinson's case, prosecutors wrote in court documents they had two eyewitnesses who saw Robinson shoot the victim and picked him out of an array of mugshots. They also claimed they had surveillance footage from the scene.

Prosecutors asked the judge to lock Robinson up based on documents describing the evidence against him, but public defenders asked for the actual proof, including the witness statements and surveillance tape. 

Robinson has remained locked up as the appeal in his case made its way through the court system, according to state public defenders. He faces murder and weapons charges. 

A state appellate panel ordered prosecutors to release the video tape and other evidence, but county prosecutors asked the Supreme Court to take another look, and they were joined by the state Attorney General's Office in their challenge. 

Writing for the majority, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said the court was "clarifying" court rules to require the release of certain evidence, noting that prosecutors can apply for protective orders in cases where they think releasing documents might jeopardize the safety of witnesses. 

The court said prosecutors must release most of the evidence Robinson requested, though it said the video evidence did not have to be released. In his dissent, Justice Barry Albin argued that decision created "artificial distinctions" between types of evidence and encouraged prosecutors to release second-hand reports rather than primary documents and other raw material. 

Elizabeth Jarit, an assistant deputy public defender who worked on the case, said she agreed with Albin that the video evidence should be fair game. But she also praised the ruling, calling it "a significant win for us and for all defendants who the state seeks to detain pre-trial."

Elie Honig, a top state prosecutor and director of New Jersey's Division of Criminal Justice, said he was "pleased that the Supreme Court has narrowed and clarified the scope of the rule governing discovery at the pre-trial detention phase."

Honig said the ruling struck a balance between providing evidence to defendants "without jeopardizing victims and witnesses and without imposing unrealistic burdens on prosecutors and police."

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