September 7, 2020
The constitution guarantees that defendants will not be held in pretrial detention for an unduly long period of time. After all, if they are ultimately found not guilty, they can never get that time back. The tricky part is trying to figure out when pretrial detention is so lengthy that it is downright unconstitutional.
This was the issue recently before the Vermont Supreme Court.
Lawrence Labrecque, 41, has been held without bail on charges of sexual assault on a minor since he was arraigned on July 23, 2018. Since the charges are punishable by up to life in prison, the trial court had the authority to hold him without bail upon a finding that the evidence against Labrecque was great.
After a number of delays, Labrecque was finally scheduled to go to trial in April, but the Vermont judiciary closed all courts to jury trials in March, and there’s no way of telling when trials will recommence. So, more than two years after his arraignment, still in jail and not convicted of anything, Labrecque asked the trial court to reconsider its decision to hold him without bail. The court declined to do so, and Labrecque appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.
In a ruling issued last week, a three-justice panel of the court kept Labrecque behind bars. The delay in the trial, the court wrote, “is not the result of malfeasance or neglect. Rather, it is a function of the government’s efforts to respond to a novel health crisis by establishing procedures which would serve to mitigate the resulting health risk to those who must gather in close physical proximity in order to conduct such a trial — including defendant himself.”
“Although the length of the defendant’s pretrial detention is not routine,” the court concluded, “neither it is excessive.”
The court left it to us to wonder how long you have to be stuck in jail awaiting trial before the delay becomes “excessive.”