Monday, December 10, 2012

Hold Me



State v. Steuerwald, 2012 VT 98 (mem.).

If this blog teaches you anything it is (hopefully) this: that the practice of law rarely looks like what you see in the media.  No telegenic lawyers pushing for justice and fundamental human rights against a system that is still sorting out the essential constitution from mere politics.  No screaming, over-the-top litigators telling the system that “it’s outta order.”

No, there is nothing like that in the day-to-day practice.  Instead, it is a bunch of (mostly) well-intentioned attorneys trying to make the best arguments in favor of their client’s interest and a court system that is simply trying to get it right. 

But every now and then there is a case that shows the drama of the law and the pathos of life wrecked upon the shores of the legal system.


Today’s case concerns a bail hearing.  Defendant was arrested and charged with aggravated domestic assault, furnishing alcohol to a minor, and violating conditions of release.  The State sought to have him held until trial without bail.  The Defendant objected.  The trial court approved the State’s motion, and the Defendant appealed, as allowed in bail hearings, to a single justice of the SCOV for an immediate hearing. 

The sole question on appeal is whether Defendant should be held without bail until his trial. 

A court can only deny bail if:

  • Defendant was charged with a felony involving an act of violence against another person;
  • Evidence of guilt is great;
  • Defendant’s release poses a substantial threat of physical violence to any person; and
  • No condition or combination of conditions of release will reasonably prevent the physical violence.

The last two elements must be shown with clear and convincing evidence.  That means the threat has to be much more than a simple potential, and the conditions to control must be substantially lacking. 

The SCOV begins with a recitation of the facts in the case.  These are largely uncontested and based off both police and eyewitnesses to the scene. 

Defendant was at home with his girlfriend when the two found themselves in an argument.  Defendant who has post-traumatic stress disorder was, apparently, also consuming large amounts of alcohol.  As the evening went on the arguments became louder and louder and increasing intensity.

When Defendant’s neighbor arrived home at midnight, Defendant and girlfriend were merely engaged in loud talking, and the neighbor asked them to quiet down.  They didn’t.  The noise increased, and girlfriend told neighbor that Defendant had hurt her.

More screaming and crashing followed.  The girlfriend pleaded for Defendant not to hurt her, and neighbor dialed 9-1-1.  The cries increased with Defendant’s threats toward girlfriend including a promise to put out her eyes.

When the police arrived minutes later, the scene was worse.  Screams and growls emanated from behind Tenant’s apartment door.  The police kicked down the door and found Defendant choking girlfriend.  Girlfriend was unconscious with blood around one eye. 

When police ordered him to stop, Defendant kept growling and choking Defendant.  Police tried to force Defendant to stop, but Defendant resisted.  The responding officer later testified that this was the worst domestic assault case he had ever witnessed in 26 years on the force.  If police had arrived a few minutes later, the officer was convinced that Defendant would have killed girlfriend. 

After processing 25 minutes later, police found that Defendant blood alcohol was .218.  To put it in perspective, .08 is too impaired to drive and .4 is considered deadly.  Moreover, Defendant was on a court-ordered release from another conviction that required him to keep away from alcohol.

For the SCOV this is enough evidence to establish the basis for no bail: violent felony against another person and high likelihood guilt.  The SCOV also finds that there is a substantial threat of violence to others given the unprovoked and animalistic nature of Defendant’s rage. 

The sole question is whether there are conditions available for release that would prevent such violence.  To that end, Defendant’s mom comes forward.  Mom resides at a Buddhist monastery in Calais, Vermont.  She represented that alcohol was not allowed in the monastery, that she would watch over her boy, and that she knew enough martial arts to defend herself from his rages. 

This is not enough for the SCOV.  The monastery is a semi-public place where others come and go.  Alcohol is ubiquitous in our society.  Merely because it is not available at the monastery does not prevent Defendant from heading down to the Maple Corners Package Store and loading up with some 40s of St. Ides.  There is nothing in mom’s proposal to either keep or enforce Defendant’s terms of release.  Defendant through his behavior has already shown an inability to comply with the terms of release, and there is no reason to think that motherly love and eastern meditative calm with act to prevent further relapses and outbreaks. 

In the end, mom’s offer is not enough and the trial court’s denial of bail is affirmed.  Defendant can practice meditation in the county jail until at least trial. 

Given the sad facts, it is certainly no fault to the mother for trying to get custody of her son.  Nevertheless, it appears that the extreme violence of Defendant’s crime would require much more stringent and controlled terms of release that go beyond what the abbot of a Buddhist monastery can offer and not-offer.

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