Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: Bail Must be Affordable to Defendants

In a unanimous ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reminded prosecutors, judges, and criminal defendants across the Commonwealth that bail should be affordable to the person charged with a crime. A Massachusetts lawyer that specializes in criminal law will be able to answer any questions about whether this new court ruling applies to your specific case.

In Brangan v. Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the Commonwealth, ruled that bail cannot substitute for a pretrial detention order. The Supreme Court justices correctly note that all defendants in a criminal trial are guilty until proven innocent and it is necessary to leave the defendants as unencumbered as possible in order to reduce the burden on these presumably innocent individuals and ensure they have access to a fair trial. A bail that is set above the level affordable to a criminal defendant cannot be paid, which means that individual cannot work at his or her job or see his or her family, a massive disruption in the criminal defendant’s life. Perhaps even more importantly, though, a person who is in a holding cell will not be able to meaningfully contribute to his or her defense, a potentially ominous violation of his or her Constitutional rights.

For prosecutors seeking to keep a person charged with a crime in detention until a trial has completed, the Massachusetts justices noted that the proper legal avenue was through a pretrial detention order. Prosecutors should not simply seek a bail amount set so high above the defendant’s means and ability that there has been a de facto pretrial detention order, without the judge actually approving one. According to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, this amounts to a violation of the Due Process rights guaranteed in the United States Constitution and the Constitution of Massachusetts.

Importantly, the prosecutor still has the option of asking a judge to declare a criminal defendant “dangerous” and thus keep him or her incarcerated until the trial has completed. The judge may also set bail at an unaffordable level if there is a serious flight risk, and therefore incarcerating the criminal defendant would be necessary to ensure the person showed up for his or her trial.

In Brangan v. Commonwealth, Justice Geraldine S. Hines writes, “A bail that is set without any regard to whether a defendant is a pauper or a plutocrat runs the risk of being excessive and unfair.” In a footnote, the Court also drew attention to the racial disparities that exist in bail hearings, where ethnic and racial minority groups are disproportionately affected by excessive bail.

As noted by the Boston Globe, the focus on whether bail is fair or not to individuals charged with a crime has recently come into the national spotlight. In a bipartisan move, Senators Kamala Harris and Rand Paul have introduced legislation meant to nudge states away from excessive bail requirements.

Speak to a Massachusetts Criminal Defense Attorney Today

If you have been charged with a crime or believe that your bail is excessive or unaffordable, then you should contact a Massachusetts criminal law attorney who can advise you of your legal options and answer any questions that you may have about your specific case.