The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Thursday that defendants who are facing prolonged incarceration due to COVID-19 trial delays have the right to a new detention hearing if certain requirements are met.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey and the Office of the Public Defender brought this case. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied the lawsuit’s broad requests that (1) defendants charged with a second-degree offense or less be released if they have been detained for over six months; and (2) defendants charged with a first-degree offense be given a new detention hearing if they have been detained for over six months.
Rather than granting the blanket requests, the court unanimously ruled that defendants have the right to apply for a new detention hearing. The justices explained that the COVID-19 related trial delays constitute a “change of circumstance” under New Jersey statute law.
To reopen a detention hearing, the defendant must have been detained for at least six months. The defendant must also “present new information that was not known that the time of the initial hearing and that ‘has a material bearing’ on the release decision.” Materiality may be dependent on the individual defendant’s length of detention, the length of detention compared to the predicted length of incarceration, the defendant’s plea offer, the defendant’s health risks, and other factors.
Defendants who have been charged with murder or who face a potential life sentence will likely be ineligible to reopen detention hearings.
Regarding the court’s ruling, the ACLU-NJ Director of Supreme Court Advocacy Alexander Shalom said “we’re gratified that the court recognized a desperate need to address the crisis in the criminal courts precipitated by the pandemic.”