TRENTON -- Prosecutors do not have to present live witnesses when trying to convince a judge to throw someone in jail under New Jersey's new criminal justice system, the state's highest court ruled on Tuesday.
The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously rejected arguments from public defenders and civil liberties advocates that the constitution guaranteed criminal defendants the right to confront witnesses at hearings that determine whether they should be held until trial.
The case was the latest to tackle a technical but high-stakes issue raised by New Jersey's massive criminal justice system overhaul, which eliminated cash bail for most defendants.
It involved an arrest in Camden just over an hour after the new system took effect.
According to court records, police saw Amed Ingram wielding a .45 caliber handgun at 1:08 a.m. that day and arrested him on weapons charges including possession of a handgun by a convicted felon.
In court documents, police provided few details about the circumstances of the arrest other than to say they saw Ingram holding the gun.
In a section meant to describe how police became aware of the underlying facts of the arrest, a police officer wrote simply "officer observations." In another document, the officer wrote that he had recovered shell casings from the scene and a second officer also saw the incident.
Ingram also had a lengthy criminal record and received the highest possible score on a public safety assessment, a tool used by the courts to gauge a defendant's potential risk of flight and danger to the community.
Under the new system, if prosecutors want a judge to lock someone up until trial, they have to hold a detention hearing within 48 hours. At that hearing, public defenders argued Ingram had a right to confront the witnesses testifying against him, which in this case were the police officers themselves.
A trial judge said it was not necessary for the police officers themselves to show up in court, and public defenders appealed, but an appellate panel also sided with prosecutors.
While the right to confront witnesses at trial is well-established in constitutional law, the question is less clear at a detention hearing, where the burden of proof is lower because the judge is deciding only whether to lock someone up until trial.
"We think the decision to lock someone up is a critical one, especially before they've been convicted of anything," said Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney at the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which joined public defenders in their appeal.
In court papers, state prosecutors argued the tight timeline of the pretrial hearings would mean live witnesses -- including, in some cases, victims of crimes -- would have to make court appearances in short order in nearly every case, creating "an extraordinary burden on the criminal justice system."
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, writing for the court, held that the underlying documents supporting the state's case was enough for a pretrial hearing, citing case law in the federal courts to support the justices' decision.
Rabner wrote that law enforcement should provide more details in their filings to support having a defendant jailed, but that police don't have to follow "a mathematical formula" in writing their reports.
The justices also held that individual judges can order witnesses be called if they aren't convinced by the state's case.
State Attorney General Christopher Porrino praised the ruling, saying it prevented the "harassment and intimidation of victims and witnesses who would otherwise have to come to court to testify and be cross-examined within days of the crime."
Joseph Krakora, the state public defender, said he was "disappointed" with the decision but "heartened" that the justices provided new guidelines for police so their court filings "comport with basic principles of due process."