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New Mexico Supreme Court: Seriousness of Charged Crime Itself Not Sufficient to Deny Defendant Pretrial Release

by Dale Chappell

A court must not automatically consider any single factor to be dispositive when deciding whether to deny or grant pretrial release, but must consider several factors on the record to determine if an accused must be detained, the New Mexico Supreme Court held.

Mariah Ferry, having been charged with first-degree murder, was granted pretrial release after the court determined that, while the crimes were “gruesome and heinous,” that alone was not enough to keep Ferry in jail until trial. The State disagreed and appealed that decision to the New Mexico Supreme Court.

On appeal, the State argued that the district court erroneously concluded that the nature of the charges, “no matter how serious the crime,” are “never sufficient” to prove a defendant’s future dangerousness and thus denial of pretrial release. The Supreme Court observed that is one reasonable interpretation of the district court’s ruling. However, another reasonable interpretation is that it did consider the seriousness of the charges and nevertheless concluded that certain conditions of release could still reasonably protect the community.

New Mexico law provides that bail may be denied by a court if the State proves “by clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant poses a future threat to the public, and that no conditions of release would protect the public from the accused. The State may offer, for example, evidence that the accused has intimidated witnesses or victims, or has shown an inability to abide by the directive of an authority figure in order to prove detention is needed, the Court said.

The Supreme Court explained that the parties and the court “must not automatically consider any one factor to be dispositive in pretrial detention hearings.”

Ferry was accused of participating in the kidnapping and murder of a person. The court, at the detention hearing, granted pretrial release, having found that Ferry had previously been released without any violations on conditions of release in another case weeks earlier. Those conditions required that Ferry have no contact with codefendants or the victim’s family, not to use alcohol or drugs, not to possess weapons, and to wear an ankle monitor at all times. The court determined those conditions were sufficient to allow Ferry to be released until trial.

The problem in this case was that the district court judge’s verbal order did not match the written order regarding the rationale for denying the State’s motion for pretrial detention. “Had the district court judge been clear in his written Order, as he was in his oral ruling,” the record would have been clear on the court’s reasons for granting pretrial release, the Supreme Court said.

The Court instructed: “We encourage judges to carefully reduce to writing all reliable information they have considered when deciding to detain or not to detain a defendant.”

Accordingly, the Supreme Court explained that “there are two reasonable interpretations of the district court judge’s Order,” so “a remand is necessary to allow the district court judge to clarify what he intended by his written Order.” See: State v. Ferry, 409 P.3d 918 (N.M. 2017). 

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