United States v. Salerno

United States Supreme Court

481 U.S. 739, 107 S.Ct. 2095, 95 L.Ed.2d 697 (1987)


      This case stems from the prosecution of two alleged organized crime figures under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Here the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of a federal statute permitting denial of bail in cases where the pretrial release of a defendant threatens the safety of other persons or the community.


Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.


      The Bail Reform Act of 1984 allows a federal court to detain an arrestee pending trial if the government demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence after an adversary hearing that no release conditions “will reasonably assure ... the safety of any other person and the community.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit struck down this provision of the Act as facially unconstitutional, because, in that court’s words, this type of pretrial detention violates “substantive due process.” We granted certiorari because of a conflict among the Courts of Appeals regarding the validity of the Act. ... We hold that, as against the facial attack mounted by these respondents, the Act fully comports with constitutional requirements. We therefore reverse.


      Responding to “the alarming problem of crimes committed by persons on release,” ... Congress formulated the Bail Reform Act of 1984 ... as the solution to a bail crisis in the federal courts. The Act represents the National Legislature’s considered response to numerous perceived deficiencies in the federal bail process. By providing for sweeping changes in both the way federal courts consider bail applications and the circumstances under which bail is granted, Congress hoped to “give the courts adequate authority to make release decisions that give appropriate recognition to the danger a person may pose to others if released.” ...


      To this end, Sec. 314(a) of the Act requires a judicial officer to determine whether an arrestee shall be detained. Section 3142(e) provides that “[i]f, after a hearing pursuant to the provisions of subsection (f), the judicial officer finds that no condition or combination of conditions will reasonably assure the appearance of the person as required and the safety of any other person and the community, he shall order the detention of the person prior to trial.” Section 3142(f) provides the arrestee with a number of procedural safeguards. He may request the presence of counsel at the detention hearing, he may testify and present witnesses in his behalf, as well as proffer evidence, and he may cross-examine other witnesses appearing at the hearing. If the judicial officer finds that no conditions of pretrial release can reasonably assure the safety of other persons and the community, he must state his findings of fact in writing, § 3142(i), and support his conclusion with “clear and convincing evidence.” § 3142(f).


      The judicial officer is not given unbridled discretion in making the detention determination. Congress has specified the considerations relevant to that decision. These factors include the nature and seriousness of the charges, the substantiality of the government’s evidence against the arrestee, the arrestee’s background and characteristics, and the nature and seriousness of the danger posed by the suspect’s release. § 3142(g). Should a judicial officer order detention, the detainee is entitled to expedited appellate review of the detention order. § 3145(b), (c).


      Respondents Anthony Salerno and Vincent Cafaro were arrested on March 21, 1986, after being charged in a 29-count indictment alleging various Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) violations, mail and wire fraud offenses, extortion, and various criminal gambling violations. The RICO counts alleged 35 acts of racketeering activity, including fraud, extortion, gambling, and conspiracy to commit murder. At respondents’ arraignment, the Government moved to have Salerno and Cafaro detained pursuant to § 3142(e), on the ground that no condition of release would assure the safety of the community or any person. The District Court held a hearing at which the Government made a detailed proffer of evidence. The Government’s case showed that Salerno was the “boss” of the Genovese Crime Family of La Cosa Nostra and that Cafaro was a “captain” in the Genovese Family. Accordingly, to the Government’s proffer, based in large part on conversations intercepted by a court-ordered wiretap, the two respondents had participated in wide-ranging conspiracies to aid their illegitimate enterprises through violent means. The Government also offered the testimony of two of its trial witnesses, who would assert that Salerno personally participated in two murder conspiracies. Salerno opposed the motion for detention, challenging the credibility of the Government’s witnesses. He offered the testimony of several character witnesses as well as a letter from his doctor stating that he was suffering from a serious medical condition. Cafaro presented no evidence at the hearing, but instead characterized the wiretap conversations as merely “tough talk.”


      The District Court granted the Government’s detention motion, concluding that the Government had established by clear and convincing evidence that no condition or combination of conditions of release would ensure the safety of the community or any person.


      Respondents appealed, contending that to the extent that the Bail Reform Act permits pretrial detention on the ground that the arrestee is likely to commit future crimes, it is unconstitutional on its face. Over a dissent, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed. ...


      Respondents ... contend that the Bail Reform Act violates the Excessive Bail Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Court of Appeals did not address this issue because it found that the Act violates the Due Process Clause. We think that the Act survives a challenge founded upon the Eighth Amendment.


      The Eighth Amendment addresses pretrial release by providing merely that “Excessive bail shall not be required.” The Clause, of course, says nothing about whether bail shall be available at all. Respondents nevertheless contend that this Clause grants them a right to bail calculated solely upon considerations of flight. They rely on Stack v. Boyle ... (1951), in which the Court stated that “bail set at a figure higher than an amount reasonably calculated [to ensure the defendant’s presence at trial] is ‘excessive’ under the Eighth Amendment.” In respondents’ view, since the Bail Reform Act allows a court essentially to set bail at an infinite amount for reasons not related to the risk of flight, it violates the Excessive Bail Clause. Respondents concede that the right to bail they have discovered in the Eighth Amendment is not absolute. A court may, for example, refuse bail in capital cases. And, as the Court of Appeals noted and respondents admit, a court may refuse bail when the defendant presents a threat to the judicial process by intimidating witnesses. ... Respondents characterize these exceptions as consistent with what they claim to be the sole purpose of bail—to ensure integrity of the judicial process.


      While we agree that a primary function of bail is to safeguard the courts’ role in adjudicating the guilt or innocence of defendants, we reject the proposition that the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits the government from pursuing other admittedly compelling interests through regulation of pretrial release. The above-quoted dicta in Stack v. Boyle is far too slender a reed on which to rest this argument. The Court in Stack had no occasion to consider whether the Excessive Bail Clause requires courts to admit all defendants to bail, because the statute before the Court in that case in fact allowed the defendants to be bailed. Thus, the Court had to determine only whether bail, admittedly available in that case, was excessive if set at a sum greater than that necessary to ensure the arrestees’ presence at trial. ...


      In our society liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception. We hold that the provisions for pretrial detention in the Bail Reform Act of 1984 fall within that carefully limited exception. The Act authorizes the detention prior to trial of arrestees charged with serious felonies who are found after an adversary hearing to pose a threat to the safety of individuals or to the community which no condition of release can dispel. The numerous procedural safeguards detailed above must attend this adversary hearing. We are unwilling to say that this congressional determination, based as it is upon the primary concern of every government—a concern for the safety and indeed the lives of its citizens—on its face violates ... the Excessive Bail Clause of the Eighth Amendment.


      The judgment of the Court of Appeals is therefore reversed.



Justice Marshall, with whom Justice Brennan joins, dissenting.


      This case brings before the Court for the first time a statute in which Congress declares that a person innocent of any crime may be jailed indefinitely, pending the trial of allegations which are legally presumed to be untrue, if the Government shows to the satisfaction of a judge that the accused is likely to commit crimes, unrelated to the pending charges, at any time in the future. Such statutes, consistent with the usages of tyranny and the excesses of what bitter experience teaches us to call the police state, have long been thought incompatible with the fundamental human rights protected by our Constitution. Today a majority of this Court holds otherwise. Its decision disregards basic principles of justice established centuries ago and enshrined beyond the reach of governmental interference in the Bill of Rights. ...



Justice Stevens, dissenting. ...