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Ninth Circuit: Younger Abstention Not Appropriate in Habeas Case Challenging Lack of Constitutionally Sufficient Bail Hearing

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on February 9, 2018, that Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971) does not require a U.S. district court to abstain from hearing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus challenging the conditions of pretrial detention in state court.

Erick Arevalo was arrested and charged with crimes related to a domestic dispute on July 1, 2017. Five days later, a California trial court set his bail at $1.5 million. On August 10, 2017, Arevalo filed a petition for a bail hearing or reduction, arguing that his pretrial release conditions were unconstitutional. In support of his petition, Arevalo noted that he had no criminal history, had never failed to appear, was a low risk for non-appearance, and would live with a church member if released.

The trial court held a hearing and lowered Arevalo’s bail to $1 million. Arevalo thought that this remained unconstitutional and filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus before the California Court of Appeal. Interestingly, the State agreed with Arevalo, refused to defend the trial court’s bail conditions and argued that he deserved a hearing with specific consideration given to his ability to pay, as well as nonmonetary alternatives to bail. The state appellate court summarily denied Arevalo’s petition anyway, as did the California Supreme Court.

Arevalo then filed an emergency petition in U.S. district court. Again, the State supported Arevalo’s petition. This time, instead of denying the petition, the district court determined, on its own, that it must abstain from entertaining the petition due to the precedent set in Younger. Arevalo appealed, and the Ninth Circuit reversed.

According to the Court, Younger abstention is “a jurisprudential doctrine rooted in overlapping principles of equity, comity, and federalism.” The doctrine cautions against federal interference with ongoing state criminal, civil and administrative proceedings. Here, the U.S. district court believed that weighing in on state-level bail decisions would constitute interference with state proceedings in contravention of Younger.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed for two reasons. First, the Court said that “Younger abstention is not appropriate in this case because the issues raised in the bail appeal are distinct from the underlying criminal prosecution and would not interfere with it.” That is, regardless of the final disposition of the bail issue, the State’s prosecution will still proceed. Indeed, as Supreme Court Justice Jackson once said, “an order fixing bail can be reviewed without halting the main trial—its issues are entirely independent of the issues to be tried.” Stack v. Boyle, 342 U.S. 1 (1951) (Jackson, J., concurring).

Moreover, Younger abstention does not apply in Arevalo’s case because it “fits squarely within the irreparable harm exception.” Where, as here, Younger abstention would leave in place a clear deprivation of constitutional rights, it should not be applied if doing so would pose the danger of irreparable harm that is both great and immediate. The Court noted that “[d]eprivation of physical liberty by detention constitutes irreparable harm.”

Arevalo had been incarcerated for more than “six months with a constitutionally adequate bail hearing.” Thus, the Court concluded that his case “easily falls within the irreparable harm exception to Younger.”

Accordingly, because the State agreed with Arevalo and there would be nothing left for the U.S. district court to decide, the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling and directed that it grant a conditional writ of habeas corpus. The California trial court was given 14 days to conduct a new, constitutionally sufficient bail hearing. See: Arevalo v. Hennessy, 882 F.3d 763 (9th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Arevalo v. Hennessy



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