N.J. Court Orders Probable-Cause Docs Released

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – A murder suspect had a right to review eyewitness testimony and surveillance video implicating him before he was detained, a New Jersey appeals court ruled Wednesday, responding to the state’s new bail-reform law.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the New Jersey Appellate Division is the first to address the law, which went into effect this year and has been the subject of legal wrangling by defense attorneys and state prosecutors.

In the underlying case, police arrested defendant Habeeb Robinson in Newark on Jan. 4 and charged him with murder based on a surveillance video, a witness’s positive identification from a photo array and  eyewitness accounts of an alleged shooting.

Robinson has a checkered past — he was arrested in 2009 on firearms and robbery charges and again in 2015 on allegations of distributing a controlled substance near a park, according to arrest reports.

When Robinson’s attorneys asked for the materials on which prosecutors relied to establish probable cause in the shooting, the government demurred, arguing they were obligated only to provide materials described in the probable-cause affidavit.

The appellate court on Wednesday affirmed an earlier ruling nu Superior Court Judge Ronald Wigler, who found that Robinson had a right to access the surveillance video and eyewitness statements because prosecutors relied on those materials in their probable-cause affidavit.

“Clearly the state relies on the affidavit to establish probable cause, and therefore, the materials described by hearsay in the affidavit ‘relate’ to the detention application,” Judge Jose Fuentes wrote for the panel.

“In this case, the murder charge was based almost exclusively on witness identifications,” the 27-page opinion continues. The salient point is that the defendant should have the opportunity to review the identifications to prepare a defense.”

Fuentes added that Robinson should have had access to the initial police report on his arrest because it provided basic background on the crime.

The decision does not significantly alter New Jersey’s new bail laws, but it may make it easier for defendants to challenge probable cause during the pretrial detention stage.

Fuentes noted that allowing such discovery in future cases “may reveal to the court that the charges, while nominally supported by probable cause, appear exaggerated or a product of over-charging.”

The Bail Reform Act, which was passed in 2014 but went into effect on Jan. 1, 2017, enforces a 10 percent maximum for bond payments. It also favors pretrial release and monitoring for many defendants.

Critics of the new law say it loosens bond requirements and allows potentially dangerous defendants back on the streets.

Proponents of the law, however, say it avoids forcing poor defendants to remain in jail because they cannot pay their bond. They also argue it takes a risk-based approach to bail and institutes bail only for those who actually warrant it.

Under the new system, prosecutors can still make motions for pretrial detention, after which the defendant is detained in jail until a hearing. At that hearing the defendant can cross-examine witnesses and testify on his own behalf to disprove probable cause.

Fuentes wrote that prosecutors’ arguments that allowing discovery at a pretrial detention hearing would turn it into a “mini-trial” fail because “the scope of discovery will not necessarily determine the scope of the hearing.”

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