Pretrial detention seriously restricts the physical liberty of presumptively innocent people who have yet to be tried and convicted. The Bail Reform Act (BRA) imposes several procedural requirements that must be satisfied before a judge can order the pretrial detention of a federal defendant. At a detention hearing, the BRA allows a judge to order the pretrial detention of an arrestee who poses either a danger to the community or a flight risk. The BRA states unequivocally that a finding of dangerousness must be supported by clear and convincing evidence, but the statute is silent as to the evidentiary standard for establishing a defendant’s flight risk. In the absence of statutory guidance, the courts of appeals have utilized a “preponderance of the evidence” standard.
This Comment contends that the preponderance standard for flight risk is unconstitutional and interpretively incorrect. In cases involving similar government restrictions on physical liberty, the Supreme Court has generally required at least a “clear and convincing evidence” standard to comport with due process. Using these cases as a baseline, this Comment applies the Mathews v. Eldridge due process framework to reveal the constitutional infirmity of the preponderance standard for pretrial flight risk.
In making the interpretive argument for a clear and convincing evidence standard, this Comment dissects the BRA’s legislative history and statutory evolution to show that Congress intended for flight risk and dangerousness to be considered under equivalent standards. This Comment concludes by making a constitutional avoidance argument: there exists (1) a serious question as to the constitutional validity of the preponderance standard for flight risk and (2) a plausible interpretation of the BRA—that flight risk ought to be proven by clear and convincing evidence—that avoids those constitutional concerns.