At the urging of many in the criminal justice system, the state Supreme Court has amended its court orders that set deadlines for prosecutors to arraign, turn over evidence and bring cases to trial in Bernalillo County.
District Attorney Raúl Torrez welcomed the changes but said his office will continue to struggle to meet even the extended deadlines unless it gets money for more prosecutors and other resources.
The Administrative Office of the Courts on Tuesday announced the rule changes, which were made after defense lawyers, public defenders, prosecutors and others worked for months to address issues with the case management order, or CMO.
The CMO, put in place in February 2015, was aimed at quickening the pace at which criminal cases were litigated in District Court in Bernalillo County. One of the goals was to address a Metropolitan Detention Center that was crowded and packed with men and women who hadn’t been convicted of crimes and were waiting for trial.
The average daily population when the case management order went into effect in was 1,660, and that average dropped to 1,100 in October of this year, according to the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
Torrez, who took office in January, has said the CMO has been a burden to prosecutors and contributed to the city’s rising crime rate – because so many cases were dismissed after prosecutors didn’t meet the new deadlines. He urged the state’s highest court to make some changes to the rules.
Torrez said Tuesday that the rule changes, which will take effect Jan. 18, are an improvement, but added that they “do not represent the kind of comprehensive change we were hoping for.”
Torrez had wanted prosecutions in Albuquerque to be governed by rules in other judicial districts throughout the state, which don’t have the same type of deadlines.
Matt Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said the changes address the concerns about the case management order and will show that the deadlines didn’t harm the local criminal justice system as Torrez and others in law enforcement have contended.
“An unintended benefit from these rule changes is the DA will no longer be able to point at the CMO as the cause of rising crime,” he said in a statement. “It will become evident the changes obtained by the state have absolutely no effect on crime rates.”
One change is that judges won’t sanction prosecutors — by dismissing their cases, for example — if there is a failure to transport a defendant to court that isn’t the fault of the prosecutor. Torrez had said during public meetings that in at least one case a criminal defendant refused to be transported to court and then had the case dismissed.
The rule changes also say that after a case has been dismissed without prejudice or voluntarily dismissed by prosecutors, the same charges can be refiled without the need for a new probable cause determination. That means prosecutors won’t have to present the case to a grand jury as long as they already had done so before the case was dismissed.
“It should help conserve some of the limited resources we have, and it should help our law enforcement partners keep officers on the street,” Torrez said.
But Coyte said he was concerned about how prosecutors would use that rule change.
“Some of the changes open the rule to potential abuse,” he said. “For example, the state could routinely fail to meet case deadlines, then dismiss the case and refile it to obtain a brand new scheduling order. This would delay cases by months or even years.”
Torrez said his office won’t use such tactics.
“It’s not in our interest to try to do extra work in these criminal cases,” he said. “We’re focused on being as efficient as possible.”
Richard Pugh, the district defender at Law Offices of the Public Defender in Albuquerque, said the rule changes address Torrez’s concerns but keep in place the goals of the case management order.
“We are confident that these amendments to the local rule will resolve the concerns of the district attorney and provide for a more streamlined and effective criminal justice system,” he said in an email. “Overall, we believe the changes are positive.”
Many of the other changes extended the deadlines for disclosing evidence and scheduling pretrial interviews. But it’s unlikely those changes will lead to any significant changes in how criminal cases are adjudicated, Torrez and Coyte said.
For example, prosecutors will have five more days for the initial disclosure of evidence if a defendant is in custody, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
“The changes that we saw today, while they were certainly appreciated, aren’t fundamentally going to alter the timelines or the resource constraints within the office,” Torrez said.