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DA’s criticism of court rules draws justice council’s pushback

Matt Coyte, spokesman for the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, takes issue with Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez’s requested changes to the New Mexico Supreme Court’s case management order during the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting Thursday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Some members of a local criminal justice group pushed back against the Bernalillo County’s district attorney for “politicizing” ongoing criminal justice reform with a recent report that blamed courtroom rules for an increase in crime, while other members praised the district attorney for taking steps to get “bad hombres” off the streets.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez on Thursday presented his report to the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council about problems that have arisen after a case management order, or CMO, went into effect in February 2015 that creates deadlines for criminal cases. The report suggested changes and included some harsh statements such as accusing defense lawyers of using “gamesmanship” and calling some judges’ decisions “absurd.”

The coordinating council – which is comprised of judges, criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, city and county officials and others – didn’t vote on any of Torrez’s suggestions. The group plans to address specific modifications to the CMO next month.

Any recommendations would go to the state Supreme Court, which would make the final decision on whether to change the order. Torrez’s report said thousands of cases have been dismissed since the order went into effect, calling it the “most likely reason” for an increase in crime the city has seen in recent years. He said many of the cases have been dismissed, either by prosecutors or judges, because CMO deadlines couldn’t be met.

Torrez is suggesting several changes, including giving judges discretion in deciding what the remedy should be if prosecutors miss a deadline, and that cases can’t be dismissed over administrative processes that are outside of prosecutors’ hands, such as if an inmate isn’t transported to a hearing.

“It is fundamentally not my intention in presenting this report to go back to the bad old days where we stuffed people in jail and failed to provide justice,” he said.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez presents his report on a case management order that affects criminal cases in the 2nd Judicial District on Thursday. Torrez said the order has led to thousands of criminal cases being dismissed in recent years. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Torrez said he’s going to make reforms within his office and make suggestions to Albuquerque police about how they can better coordinate cases.

But several council members were critical of certain aspects of Torrez’s report, especially labeling defense attorney tactics as “gamesmanship” and calling some of the judges’ decisions to dismiss cases “absurd.”

“Groups such as this succeed when they take their political hats off and stop pointing fingers at one another and start trying to figure out how to solve problems,” said Matthew Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “What was demonstrated today … was that that’s not happening. The report described some of the judge’s decisions as absurd. That’s finger-pointing and it’s not helpful and it’s not accurate. But it gets votes.

“To suggest that criminal defense attorneys are ‘gaming’ the system – I have 600 members of our organization and they are in an uproar,” he said.

Torrez was asked if he would retract that phrase about defense attorneys.

He responded that aspects of the CMO incentivize defense attorneys to litigate discovery issues to try to get cases dismissed on “technicalities,” instead of trying to plea bargain or get suspects into preprosecution programs.

“I don’t fault you for that,” Torrez said. “But, no, I’m not going to back down from the assertion that games are being played on procedural grounds in district court.”

Judge objects

The CMO, which was approved by the state Supreme Court, aimed to address several problems with the local criminal justice system – criminal cases were being significantly delayed and the county jail was overcrowded with long-term pretrial detainees – with deadlines for prosecutors and court cases.

Chief Judge Nan Nash said the court will collect transcripts of the many cases that were dismissed that Torrez referred to in his report to see if the cases were, in fact, dismissed for technical reasons.

“There are specifically very large allegations about what our judges are doing, dismissing loads of cases on technicalities, without drilling down and looking at the cases,” she said. “As the chief judge of this district, I feel backed against the wall about how this district court has to respond to the report.”

Rob Perry, chief administrative officer of the city of Albuquerque, attends the the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council on Thursday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Rob Perry, the city’s chief administrative officer, said Torrez’s report showed that something must be done to address rising crime rates in the city, which he said is causing businesses to relocate. He said the group shouldn’t debate what is causing the rising crime rates but instead try to reverse the trend.

From 2009 to 2015, Albuquerque’s violent crime rate jumped 21.5 percent, according to a previous report from the district attorney, and the city is now the fifth-most violent in the country on a per capita basis. He said that during the same time, the nation’s violent crime rate dropped 13.7 percent.

A recent report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau found the Albuquerque metro area to have the highest per capita auto-theft rate in the country.

“Almost every night … there’s a tragedy in this city and it has absolutely eaten away at the quality of life, the economic vitality and what it means to live for the future in Albuquerque,” Perry said. “I don’t think we have the luxury of getting into technical debates about this. We’ve got some bad hombres out there.”

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