- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Witness testimony is not always necessary in applying new constitutional provisions that can keep criminal suspects jailed without bail until they go to trial, the New Mexico Supreme Court affirmed Wednesday, responding to concerns from prosecutors about burdensome requirements.

Chief Justice Charles Daniels summarized the court’s position after prosecutors warned that detention hearings for extremely dangerous defendants may be derailed or bogged down by trial-like requirements.

Daniels said judges can rely on written criminal complaints assembled by police, detectives and prosecutors and seek out additional testimony if warranted. Justices plan to issue written guidance in the near future about evidentiary procedures at detention hearings to justify holding defendants without bail amid discord among prosecutors, public defenders and judges.

Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez appealed to the high court for guidance after his motions to deny bail were rejected in the case of Paul Salas, charged with 47 counts of armed robbery, and for Mauralon Harper, accused of shooting his pregnant girlfriend during an argument.

District Judge Stan Whitaker insisted he had exercised proper authority in seeking new testimony to corroborate what prosecutors described as a confession from Salas and second- and third-hand accounts of crimes attributed to Harper.

The Supreme Court deferred to Whitaker’s final rulings that set expensive bail requirements, while also returning the case to his court so that prosecutors to seek further consideration of their evidence.

New Mexico voters last November approved a constitutional amendment allowing judges to deny bail to defendants considered extremely dangerous, but only in cases where courts can establish “clear and convincing evidence” that criminal suspects represents a danger and should be locked up until their trials. Formal procedures have been published for public comment but not yet adopted.

“It’s going to take a while to learn new ways of doing things here in New Mexico,” Daniels said. “For a long, long time we’ve depended on the myth that how much money a person pays (in bail) will determine how much the community is protected.”

Torrez had feared the cases against Salas and Harper would establish a “bright line rule that we could not proceed without a live witness,” and applauded the court’s guidance. He said out of about 70 requests for no-bond detention since January that two-thirds have been rejected.

“That was our fundamental objection, that the evidence that we were submitting in documentary form were not being considered in the absence of a live witness,” he said. “I think there’s still going to be discretion for a judge to make a determination based on the specific facts or deficiencies.”

The Supreme Court found that another district court judge fulfilled evidentiary requirements in denying pretrial release to a woman charged with murder in the connection with the theft of a vehicle and a subsequent crash that killed two people.

Chief Justice Charles Daniels noted that the defendant, Elexus Groves, had been linked to two additional police chases in stolen vehicles.

“How would you have possibly provided a rebuttal of that as evidence of dangerousness?” Daniels asked.

Public Defender Scott Wisniewski said that Groves was not given the opportunity to challenge evidence and witness testimony that she was in the driver’s seat of the stolen vehicle when the fatal crash happened.

Though the motion to hold Salas until trial was denied in District Court, he was being held on a no-bail order in a related federal prosecution. Harper remained in jail with little chance at posting a $100,000 bond, while also facing a no-bail hold for violating release terms in separate criminal case.

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