Tenth Circuit Tosses New Mexico Bail Reform Challenge

(CN) – The 10th Circuit upheld New Mexico’s bail reform efforts Monday, finding the rules that allow the state to either bar bail before arraignment or let more people go with no bail at all are constitutional.

In 2016, New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment to reform bond rules, and the new rules took effect July 1, 2017. Within a month, the Bail Bond Association of New Mexico, along with five New Mexico Legislators and Darlene Collins, an individual who had been released under the new bond rules, filed a class action claiming the new rules violated the Fourth, Eighth and 14th Amendments

According to the plaintiffs, the new rules as issued by the New Mexico Supreme Court – the defendant in the case – violated the Eighth Amendment ban on excessive bail, which they said “necessarily implies the option of bail to avoid a pretrial deprivation of liberty in the first place, just as the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial implies the option of a trial.”

Furthermore, they said the new rules violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of due process and that conditions of release like GPS monitoring were also unconstitutional.

A federal judge dismissed the class action in December 2017, according to the 10th Circuit ruling written by U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Beck Briscoe,  “after finding that BBANM and the legislator plaintiffs lacked standing; that plaintiffs’ claims against the state courts and individual defendants, in their official capacities, are barred by sovereign immunity; that plaintiffs’ claims against the state court judges and court executives, in their individual capacities, are barred by judicial immunity; that plaintiffs’ claims against the state supreme court justices, in their individual capacities, are barred by legislative immunity; and that plaintiffs failed to state a claim.”

The judge in the case also imposed Rule 11 sanctions of $14,868 against attorney A. Blair Dunn of Western Agriculture, Resource and Business Advocates, finding “plaintiffs’ counsel added the legislator plaintiffs and [BBANM] as parties to this case for [an] improper purpose – namely, for political reasons to express their opposition to lawful bail reforms in the state of New Mexico rather than to advance colorable claims for judicial relief.”

On Monday, the 10th Circuit panel upheld both the ruling and the sanctions. After finding only Collins had standing in the case, the panel ruled the New Mexico justices were shielded from the lawsuit by judicial immunity and the state officials enjoyed sovereign immunity.

As for the sanctions, Briscoe wrote the panel employed an objective standard “intended to eliminate any ‘empty-head pure-heart’ justification for patently frivolous arguments.” And the panel found no error in the lower court’s reasoning for the sanctions.

“There was no reasonable basis for including BBANM and the legislator plaintiffs in this case. Therefore, this is not a situation in which the district court awarded sanctions based on a finding of improper purpose even though there was an objective basis for filing suit. The district court could have concluded that Rule 11 sanctions were warranted without relying on any potential political purpose behind the suit, and we affirm on that basis,” Briscoe wrote for the panel.

U.S. Circuit Judges Robert E. Bacharach Scott M. Matheson Jr. rounded out the panel and joined in Briscoe’s opinion.

New Mexico’s new bail system has been a hot topic of discussion in the state’s legislative session this year, with seven different bills currently moving through committee to address possible changes.

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