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Court slows down reduction in use of grand juries

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The 2nd Judicial District Court has decided to drastically scale back the planned reduction in the use of grand juries that had been scheduled for October.

Instead, the decline will be gradual, and take place over time.

Chief Judge Nan Nash said in a letter Friday to court and law enforcement officials that the court will decrease the number of grand jury panels available to prosecutors only by four days a month, or one day a week, in November and December. There will be no change in grand jury panels in October because police are often busy that month with Balloon Fiesta.

She said that the manner in which the decline will continue in 2019 hasn’t been decided.

In July, Bernalillo County court officials had said that beginning Oct. 1, grand juries would not be available to prosecutors five days a week. Instead, prosecutors would have grand jury panels six days a month and they would have to use preliminary hearings to determine if there was probable cause to charge a defendant with a crime in most cases.

The new plan, according to Nash’s letter, asks for feedback on what day a week they would prefer not convening a grand jury panel in November and December.

The original plan received pushback from the District Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement agencies, who worried in part that it would lead to scheduling conflicts and take officers off the street.

Proponents of the preliminary hearing system said it forces the state to publicly disclose its evidence, which helps speed a case along because defendants know if they want to fight the case or take a plea agreement.

Nash’s letter on Friday said the decision was made to roll out the decline gradually after court officials met with Albuquerque police and Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office officials, who raised concerns about scheduling issues.

When a person is arrested on suspicion of committing a crime, prosecutors have to establish that there was probable cause the defendant is guilty by either a grand jury, which is a secret proceeding in front of local citizens, or at a preliminary hearing in front of a judge that is attended by the defendant and the public.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez said that New Mexico laws can call for preliminary hearings to last for hours and require multiple witnesses. But during grand jury proceedings, the hearings move much quicker and don’t require as many witnesses, he said.

The debate between using grand juries and preliminary hearings was discussed for several hours at a Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee held in Albuquerque on Friday.

“We were very grateful for Judge Nash for listening to the police and community. We believe that this can be phased in over time,” said state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the co-chair of the committee. “Regardless of whether this is a good idea, we don’t need to do it today.”

Torrez said that after seven years of significant growth in crime rates, Albuquerque is now seeing crime on the decline. He worried that scheduling conflicts and having witnesses or others not show up for preliminary hearings will change that trend.

“This is not the time to mess with a good thing,” he said.

The 2nd District is the only judicial district in the state that relies heavily on grand juries to charge defendants with crimes. In 2017, 2,351 cases were initiated by a grand jury and 650 cases were initiated with a preliminary hearing.

Though police and prosecutors were against reducing the number of grand juries that are available to them, defense attorneys said during the meeting on Friday that preliminary hearings give them a chance to better understand the state’s case against their client. And that can lead to pleas earlier on in the case.

And Nash said that 61 percent of felony preliminary hearings in the judicial district last year led to a plea agreement at the hearing. That resolved the case much earlier, and therefore required much less work from police and prosecutors, had the indictment hung over the defendant’s head for months.

She also said the National Center for State Courts has recommended that Bernalillo county use more preliminary hearings and fewer grand juries.

Friday’s hearing also drew comments from victim advocates, who worried that the switch would force vulnerable people to have to testify in open court.

Terri Cole, the president of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, worried that such a change to the local criminal justice system would lead to an increase in crime.

Torrez said the court’s new plan, to slowly take away grand juries, would give the system time to adjust. But he still worries that such a change, even if gradual, could lead to problems with police schedules and other matters.

“The effects of a 70 percent reduction (in grand juries) in under two months would have been catastrophic,” Torrez said. “My concern is that we are going to have the same reduction, we’re just going to implement it through slow cuts over time.

“While that allows everyone to adjust, you’re still not tackling the fundamental resource question.”

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