State v. Baker, 2015 VT 62 (mem.)
By Andrew Delaney
There are almost as many bail-review decisions as probation-condition decisions lately, which would make this the eleventy-billionth bail-review decision (or somewhere in that numerical neighborhood).
Mr. Baker was held without bail under the statute that provides for such a hold when the defendant is charged with an offense punishable by life in prison and the “evidence of guilt is great.” Mr. Baker is charged with felony domestic assault—in his case because he has a conviction for violating an abuse-prevention order within the last ten years. He’s also charged with a habitual offender “enhancement,” which means he faces life in prison if convicted.
So the way this whole thing works is that when there’s no constitutional right to bail and the State has a plausible case, the presumption is that the defendant will be held rather than released. Though the defendant gets “an opportunity to be heard,” the trial court’s discretion is “extremely broad” and the SCOV’s review is “strictly limited.” Those quotation marks aren’t me being sarcastic—that’s straight out of the opinion. This is a three-justice review (under V.R.A.P. 9(b)(2) for you citation junkies).
In the trial court there was a weight-of-the-evidence hearing. Mr. Baker’s wife (the alleged victim) and his mother (his proposed custodian) testified, and the State submitted various exhibits, “including prior sworn statements from defendant’s wife, the arresting officer’s affidavit of probable cause, and defendant’s conviction record.”
The story is that in the days and weeks prior to the incident, Mr. Baker sent his wife a bunch of text messages, “which the trial court found were threatening, demeaning, and insulting.” Wife went to Mr. Baker’s work to confront him about his drug use. They began arguing and Mr. Baker asked her to leave, but she didn’t. “Eventually, defendant slammed his fist on a wooden board that he had been working on, and the board flipped up in the air. He then picked up the board, swung it back, and threatened to smash her in the face with it if she did not leave.” There’s a footnote here about wife’s backtracking on the threat during the weight-of-the-evidence hearing, but its existence in her prior sworn statements.
Because it’s an in-the-light-most-favorable-to-the-State-and-excluding-modifying-evidence standard below, the fact that wife toned down her testimony at the hearing doesn’t mean anything for the SCOV.
The trial court found there was sufficient evidence for the habitual-offender statute’s application, including the probable-cause affidavit and the official conviction record. The trial court also found that wife’s testimony and prior statements made out a sufficient case, and Mr. Baker was held without bail.
The SCOV reasons that the trial court carefully weighed the pros and cons of holding Mr. Baker without bail. The trial court found that Mr. Baker’s prior violations of abuse-prevention orders indicated an inability or unwillingness to follow court orders. His additional convictions and probation violations “show an inability to lead a law-abiding lifestyle for any long period of time.” Mr. Baker’s wife’s fear and the nasty text messages played into it, as well as the high emotions associated with the separation and pending divorce from his wife. While his employment and the stable residence with his mom were factors in Mr. Baker’s favor, the trial court concluded that Mr. Baker’s “release would pose too great a risk to his wife and possibly other people.”
The SCOV affirms, concluding, “The above findings are all supported by substantial evidence, and the court’s careful balancing shows a proper use of its discretion supported by the record below.”
So that’s the long and short of it. I’ve said before that I personally feel we need to be a little more wary of locking folks up and throwing away the key pretrial, and I’ll say it again. Domestic violence is a terrible thing, but does no-bail-allowed imprisonment based on later-contradicted statements really help? Even stable and loving relationships can become volatile when the right buttons are pushed, and nobody knows how to push those buttons better than one’s significant other. Give me a few minutes to run my mouth and I can probably get my wife to hurl something sharp or hard or both at me (and that’s a domestic assault, folks). People say things in the heat of the moment that may not be exactly truthful. Wouldn’t a totality-of- or preponderance-of-the-evidence standard make more sense in these situations than the excluding-modifying-evidence standard? You tell me.