Thursday, February 19, 2015

Enough is Enough

State v. Hughes, 2014 VT 112 (mem.)

By Timothy Fair

It's not often in life that one finds themselves being given a break. When it does happen, it's usually best to thank the moon or the stars or whatever it is that works for you. The last thing anyone should do is spit in the proverbial eye of your benefactor. Especially when that benefactor is the judicial system. Our case today sorta illustrates the wisdom of that advice.

The appellant in this case was arraigned on one count of aggravated domestic assault, a felony, and one count of domestic assault, a misdemeanor, on August 25th. In Vermont, when an individual is arraigned on a criminal charge, the State has the option of requesting bail, or in more serious cases, requesting that the court hold the defendant without bail. There is statutory law which spells out precisely the grounds on which bail may be set, as well as what grounds must be met for a defendant to be held without bail. The down and dirty version goes like this: bail can be set if the court finds reasons to believe that the defendant will fail to appear at future court hearings, and that the defendant poses a substantial threat to the public. It's actually a little (or a lot) more nuanced than that, but that's the gist of it. In order to be held without bail, a defendant must find him or herself being charged with either a crime that has a maximum penalty of life in jail, or a felony-level crime involving violence to another. Additionally, there must be a determination by the court that the evidence of guilt is great and that the defendant poses a significant risk of physical violence to any person. Just how one establishes that the “evidence of guilt is great” at an arraignment is a whole 'nother subject that we'll save for a future installment.

So, back to our defendant. At his August 25th arraignment, the State argued that he should be held without bail, due to the fact that he was being charged with a felony involving violence to another, the proof of his guilt was great, and that there were no conditions which could protect the public from further violence. Despite what could at best be described as a rocky relationship with the complaining witness, and at worse be described as an ongoing pattern of abuse, the court decided to give our defendant a break and release him on conditions. One of those conditions mandated that he have no contact with the complaining witness, another condition forbade him from committing any new crimes. The State objected and requested a weight of the evidence hearing be scheduled, which would in effect give them a second chance to argue why the defendant should not be released.

So, you've just dodged a bullet by being released, you know that the State is looking to lock you up for the entire pre-trial process, and you know that the court has set a hearing to give the State an opportunity to make its case. What would you do? Lay low? Stay on your best behavior? Perhaps do some community service? Strictly abide by all of your conditions of release? Not our defendant. Instead, during the three weeks between his release and the weight of the evidence hearing, our defendant picked up five new charges, including: two counts of violating an abuse prevention order(contacting the very same complaining witness from the original charges), two counts of violating the conditions of release that had just been imposed on him, and to top it off, one count of providing false information to a law enforcement officer. Needless to say, when the defendant was arraigned on the new charges, the court took about 3 seconds to decide to hold him without bail. This appeal follows.

In his appeal,  defendant concedes that the evidence of guilt was great, but argues that the State had failed to meet the second condition, providing clear and convincing evidence that his release poses an unavoidable threat of violence. 

Enter the SCOV. In making its decision, the Court first looks back at the history of the relationship between the defendant and the complaining witness. The relationship had stretched back two years, and involved multiple instances of abusive and controlling behavior. There's also evidence of ongoing substance abuse and serious lack of impulse control on the part of the defendant.  
Although the defendant denied any and all abusive behavior, the record reveals strong objective evidence to the contrary. It isn't these facts, however, which form the basis of the Court's decision. Rather, it's the fact that even though the defendant had been given a break and released following his initial arraignment, he was unable to refrain from once again contacting the complaining witness, violating multiple conditions of release as well as an active abuse prevention order, lying to a law enforcement officer and, in a nutshell, (according to the SCOV anyway) demonstrating his utter and complete lack of respect for the judicial system. The same judicial system which had just a few short weeks earlier given him the benefit of the doubt. 

The fact that the defendant once again denied all of these allegations, allegations which were supported by strong and convincing evidence, certainly doesn't help his cause. It doesn't take the Court long to uphold the trial court's ruling holding the defendant without bail. The defendant's own actions are evidence enough for the Court to determine that his release poses an unavoidable risk of violence to the complaining witness. 

 Just goes to show, when you are under the microscope . . . behave.

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