Friday, January 13, 2017

Lopez-Matias v. State

 Opinion handed down December 8, 2016

            In Lopez-Matias v. State, the Supreme Court of Missouri examined whether the denial of the right to be released on bail or other surety to individuals who are unable to provide proof of their lawful presence in the United States violated the Constitution of the State of Missouri.[1]  Ultimately, the court held that the requirement was unconstitutional, as it denied the defendant his constitutional right to have his conditions for release examined on an individual basis, in which the particular circumstances of his case could be analyzed.[2] 

I.  Facts and Holding

            On September 6, 2016, Defendant Lopez-Matias was arrested and charged with possession of a forged social security card, in violation of RSMo § 570.090.1(4).[3]  Later, the additional charges of speeding and driving without a valid driver’s license were added.[4]  Defendant Lopez-Matias was held without bail, as provided in the warrant for his arrest.[5]
            On September 9, 2016, defendant’s counsel filed a motion requesting that the trial court release Defendant Lopez-Matias on his own recognizance or, in the alternative, to set reasonable conditions for his release as outlined under RSMo § 544.455 and Missouri Supreme Court Rule 33.01.[6]  The trial court denied the motion.[7]
The sole basis for the denial of the motion was RSMo § 544.470.2, which establishes a presumption that releasing a person under any conditions provided by RSMo § 544.455  “shall not reasonably assure the appearance of the person as required if the circuit judge . . . reasonably believes that the person is an alien unlawfully present in the United States.”[8]  Further, RSMo § 544.470 provides that, if such a presumption exists, the person suspected of being unlawfully present in the U.S. “shall be committed to the jail . . . until such person provides verification of his or her lawful presence in the United States to rebut such presumption.”[9]  If the person is able to rebut the presumption, the issue of his or her release may be reconsidered.[10]  However, if the person is unable to prove his or her lawful presence, he or she may continue to be committed to jail “until discharged by due course of law,” without the possibility of being released on bail.[11]
Defendant Lopez-Matias sought review of the denial of the motion, pursuant to Rule 33.09.[12]  Lopez-Matias did not contend that he provided sufficient proof of his lawful presence in the United States, as required by RSMo §§ 544.455 and 544.470, and conceded that the statute required the trial court to deny the motion.[13]  Instead, Lopez-Matias claimed that RSMo § 544.470.2 violates article I, section 20 of the Missouri Constitution.[14]  Lopez-Matias claimed that the last sentence of the statute “plainly and unambiguously prohibit[ed] the trial court from considering conditions for his release . . . unless and until [he] prove[d] his ‘lawful presence in the United States.’”[15]

II.  Legal Background

            Article I, section 20 of the Missouri Constitution provides that “all persons shall be bailable by sufficient sureties, except for capital offenses, when the proof is evident or the presumption great.”[16]  In past decisions, this section has been interpreted to be “in the nature of instruments of grace in favor of the freedom of the individual.”[17]  The court noted in this case that the right embodied in the provision is one that “has been a part of the Bill of Rights as declared in each organic law of this state from the adoption of the Constitution of 1820.”[18]  The provision guarantees that an individual accused of a crime is entitled to bail as an absolute right, in all but capital cases.[19]
            The right is subject to certain reasonable conditions, which largely pertain to the defendant’s conduct, such as “restrictions on travel, an injunction against contacting the victim or witnesses, and/or requirements that the defendant report periodically or otherwise submit to supervision.”[20]  Additionally, if a court determines that a voluntary recognizance alone is insufficient to assure the defendant’s return, the court may require a cash deposit or bond, given either by the defendant or a third party, that guarantees the appearance of the defendant.[21]  Ultimately, these conditions are subject to a determination of the court whether such a release will reasonably assure the appearance of the defendant at trial, and the court has wide discretion “to fashion conditions for release that – on the circumstances of each particular case – adequately balance the constitutional imperative to afford the accused an opportunity for pretrial release” with the need to ensure the appearance of the defendant.[22]
            It is important to note that the requirements established by the Missouri Constitution and other relevant statutes regarding the release of criminal defendants awaiting trial are examined on a case-by-case basis to determine whether “sufficient sureties” exist.[23]  Whether a particular condition will guarantee that a defendant return depends heavily upon the facts of a given case and is not to be determined in a generalized manner.[24]
III.  Instant Decision

            Under Missouri Law, a statute is presumed to be constitutional and will not be declared unconstitutional unless it “clearly and unambiguously contravenes a constitutional provision.”[25]  The court in Lopez-Matias found that this “high and exacting standard” was met in this case.[26]
            The court held that section 544.470.2 violates the right established in article I, section 20 of the Missouri Constitution by denying the right to an entire class of defendants, specifically defendants who are not able to establish their “lawful presence in the United States.”[27]  The court held that the clear terms of the provision apply to “all persons,” and the provision does not allow the Missouri General Assembly to create exceptions for certain subsets of defendants from the right established by the provision.[28]
            The State argued that even if the statute were irreconcilable with article I, section 20, that the statute is still constitutional under article I, section 32 of the Missouri Constitution, which provides that “[n]otwithstanding section 20 of article I of this Constitution, upon a showing that the defendant poses a danger to a crime victim, the community, or any other person, the court may deny bail or may impose special conditions which the defendant and surety must guarantee.”[29]  The court held that, while article I, section 32 does allow the court to impose additional restrictions or outright deny bail in a particular case, that decision must be made on a case-by-case basis, in light of the circumstances of the specific case.[30]
IV.  Comment

            The decision in this case is significant, particularly at a time during which there has been heightened attention given to immigration issues and the rights of undocumented individuals.[31]  Ultimately, this decision upholds an important right for criminal defendants, specifically those who are undocumented and may be awaiting trial regarding their status in the United States, at a time when these issues have been given mainstream attention.  Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down a ballot initiative in Arizona which would have instituted a similar policy.[32]  These cases reaffirm the idea that an individual’s right to be released on bail should be determined on a case-by-case basis, not on sweeping generalizations about a certain class of individuals or discriminatory assertions.  Furthermore, the decisions establish the idea that whether an individual is a flight risk, or is a threat to others in the community, can only be determined on an individualized basis by looking at the circumstances of a given case and cannot be decided by the legislature on a generalized basis.

- Brandon Wood 

[1] Lopez-Matias v. State, 504 S.W.3d 716, 717–18 (Mo. 2016) (en banc).
[2] Id. at 720.
[3] Id. at 717.
[4] Id. at 717 n.1.
[5] Id. at 717.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 544.470.2 (Cum. Supp. 2013).
[9] Id. § 544.470.
[10] Id. § 544.470.2.
[11] Id.
[12] Lopez-Matias, 504 S.W.3d at 718.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Mo. Const. art. I, § 20.
[17] State v. Allen, 204 S.W. 721, 722 (Mo. 1918).
[18] Lopez-Matias, 504 S.W.3d at 718 (quoting Ex parte Burgess, 274 S.W. 423, 426 (Mo. 1925) (en banc)).
[19] State v. Jackson, 384 S.W.3d 208, 211 (Mo. 2012) (en banc).
[20] Lopez-Matias, 504 S.W.3d at 718.
[21] Id.
[22] Id. at 719.
[23] Id.
[24] See Mo. Ann. Stat. § 544.455.2 (West 2017) (“In determining which conditions of release will reasonably assure appearance, the associate circuit judge or judge shall, on the basis of available information, take into account the nature and circumstances of the offense charged, the weight of the evidence against the accused, the accused’s family ties, employment, financial resources, character and mental condition, the length of his residence in the community, his record of convictions, and his record of appearance at court proceedings or flight to avoid prosecution or failure to appear at court proceedings.”) (emphasis added).
[25] Lopez-Matias, 504 S.W.3d at 718.
[26] Id.
[27] Id. at 719.
[28] Id.
[29] Mo. Const. art. I, § 32.2
[30] Lopez-Matias, 504 S.W.3d at 720–21.
[31] See David A. Lieb, Missouri Court Strikes Law Denying Bail to Some Immigrants, Seattle Times (Dec. 8, 2016, 2:59 PM), (updated Dec. 8, 2016, 4:08 PM) (discussing how immigration issues have been given increased attention due to the presidential campaign, specifically given the proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border and more aggressively enforce immigration laws).
[32] Lopez-Valenzuela v. Arpaio, 770 F.3d 772, 789 (9th Cir. 2014) (en banc) (finding that a ballot initiative that prohibited undocumented detainees from being released on bail was unconstitutional).