SJC Recognizes Ability to Pay as Bail Factor

September 1, 2017  –  by Liam Scully

Far too often defendants are held for months or years on bails that they can’t make just because they are poor while the same defendant, if he or she just had access to resources, would be free until trial. In Stack v. Boyle, the U.S. Supreme Court stated: “This traditional right to freedom before conviction permits the unhampered preparation of a defense, and serves to prevent the infliction of punishment prior to conviction. . . . Unless this right to bail before trial is preserved, the presumption of innocence, secured only after centuries of struggle, would lose its meaning”.

In today’s decision on Brangan vs. the Commonwealth, the SJC held that, a judge must consider the defendant’s financial resources as a factor in setting bail. Although it remains true that judges are not required to set bail in an amount the defendant can afford if other considerations weigh more heavily than the defendant’s ability to pay.  

In this case, the defendant had been held in jail for more than three and one-half years because he had been unable to post bail in the amounts ordered by a superior court judge following his arrest and indictment for armed robbery while masked. The defendant petitioned for relief under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, 3. A single justice denied the petition. The defendant appealed, arguing that the superior court’s bail order violated his right to due process because the judge failed to give adequate consideration to his lack of financial resources.  

This decision was long overdue and the Supreme Judicial Court, and Justice Hines in particular, got it right!

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