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Court Finds Pretrial Detention 'Troubling,' But Constitutional

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Antonio Briggs was indicted for substantive and conspiratorial drug crimes. He was arraigned on August 17, 2010. On September 1, 2010, Magistrate Judge Hugh Scott ordered Briggs held without bail pending trial. The district court affirmed that decision, finding that Briggs poses a flight risk and danger to the community.

Briggs has been sitting in jail for two years, and is understandably antsy. He claims that his continued detention violates due process.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that Briggs' detention doesn't violate due process quite yet, but it might early next year.

There is no bright-line limit on the length of pretrial detention. Holding a indicted suspect satisfies due process only if the purpose is regulatory rather than punitive. Permissible regulatory purposes include preventing danger to the community, and ensuring a defendant’s presence at trial.

Courts review due process challenges to pretrial detention decisions for clear error. In making such an assessment, a court considers the strength of the evidence justifying detention, the government’s responsibility for the delay in proceeding to trial, and the length of the detention itself. The longer the detention, and the larger the prosecution’s part in prolonging it, the stronger the evidence justifying detention must be if it is to be deemed sufficient to justify the detention’s continuance.

There’s a statutory presumption of flight risk and dangerousness for a defendant who, like Briggs, is charged with “an offense for which a maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years or more is prescribed in the Controlled Substances Act.” Between the presumption and the district judge’s observation that the evidence against Briggs was strong, he never really stood a chance of winning that portion of his appeal.

Briggs’ due process appeal was similarly doomed because the Second Circuit had previously upheld the 24-month detention of a defendant who, like Briggs, was charged with participation in a large drug conspiracy. The court did, however, caution that the difficulties faced by the prosecution in a large and complex case do not justify the indefinite detention of the defendants.

While the Second Circuit affirmed the detention order, it noted that Briggs could revive his appeal if the trial court did not begin the trial or set reasonable bail by February 1, 2013.

Briggs will have been sitting in jail for 29 months by the Second Circuit’s deadline. What do you think? Is a 29-month ceiling for pretrial detention reasonable?

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