In an important decision delivered today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reminded trial judges that the purpose of bail is not to detain criminal defendants pending trial. The name of the case is Brangan v. Commonwealth.
The defendant is accused of robbing a bank in Springfield in 2014. The police matched his thumbprint to the note demanding money that was passed to the bank teller. The defendant was indicted and arraigned in superior court a couple of months after the robbery. A judge set bail in the amount of $50,000 on the robbery case, and another $20,000 on an open case in which the defendant was accused of violating his probation. The defendant was unable to post bail and remained in custody until the following year, when he was convicted of robbing the bank. However, following his conviction, the trial judge ordered a mistrial in light of improper statements made during the prosecutor’s closing argument. Another bail hearing was held, and a judge declined to reduce the original bail amounts imposed against the defendant. The defendant repeatedly appealed to a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, arguing the bail set by the trial court (which he had no ability to post) was excessive. The case bounced back and forth between the single justice and the trial judge, and at some point the defendant’s cumulative bail amount was reduced from $70,000 to $40,000. The defendant lacked the funds to post the reduced bail and argued he should be released on $5,000 bail and ordered to wear a GPS monitor. When the trial judge refused his request, the defendant appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court agreed to consider his case.
The Court began its analysis by noting that criminal defendants are presumed to be innocent until the Commonwealth proves their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It is important that defendants have the ability to prepare their defense without unnecessary restrictions (such as imprisonment). On the other hand, if there is evidence a defendant will not appear in court without a financial incentive, trial courts may properly order him to post a bail. The bail cannot be any higher than necessary to assure the defendant’s appearance at trial.
The most important question was whether a judge setting bail is required to consider a defendant’s financial resources in determining the appropriate amount of the bail, and the Supreme Judicial Court answered in the affirmative. The Court pointed out there are no master bail schedules connected to particular offenses and said due process and equal protection considerations require trial judges to consider how much bail an individual defendant can afford to post. The Court correctly noted that a reasonable bail for one defendant (for example, the CEO of a company) may be excessive for another defendant (for example, a homeless person). Our system is not intended to allow the wealthy to receive additional benefits (such as being permitted to purchase pretrial release) that are not available to the indigent. On the other hand, the Court held that a defendant is not constitutionally entitled to an affordable bail. If a trial judge properly determines a certain amount of bail is necessary to assure a defendant’s future appearance at court hearings, the bail will be upheld even if the defendant can not afford it. In those cases, trial judges are obligated to make detailed findings to support the amount of bail being ordered.
Bail has never been intended to act as a mechanism by which to detain a defendant until his trial. This case is an important reminder of that principle.