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Defense attorneys commend plan to reduce grand juries

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The state’s Criminal Defense Lawyers Association is commending a district court plan to reduce grand jury availability, calling it a step toward meaningful criminal justice reform.

The association weighed in Tuesday amid an ongoing tug of war in the 2nd Judicial District about how felony cases should be launched.

Most cases are initiated either when a grand jury signs off on an indictment or a judge finds probable cause to support formal charges at a preliminary hearing. And the court is gradually shifting away from Bernalillo County’s indictment-heavy system. That means prosecutors will have to start an increasing number of cases using preliminary hearings, which can take place in either district or Metropolitan Court.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez and Mayor Tim Keller have asked the state’s chief justice to intervene, and Torrez’s office recently notified district court that it would no longer schedule preliminary hearings there. NMCDLA suggests he made the decision “in retaliation for the Second Judicial District Court reducing the number of available grand jury hours.”

“Such politics have no place in the courtroom,” NMCDLA wrote in a news release Tuesday. “This will create an unnecessary backlog and greatly restrict the ability of the accused to exercise their constitutional right to have the (charges) against them reviewed for probable cause. After being given $6 million last year by the legislature, District Attorney Torrez has abandoned his promise to make his office more efficient, instead deciding to embark on a war against judges.”

In a statement Tuesday evening, a spokesman for the DA’s Office called the district court preliminary hearing process an “inefficient use of time and resources.” He said a third of all preliminary hearings were reset in the month of April “meaning the defendant was still in the community without felony charges initiated against them.”

“It is not surprising defense attorneys are defending district court preliminary hearings because it benefits their clients at the expense of public safety,” spokesman Michael Patrick wrote.

Prosecutors say that because they use stricter evidence rules, preliminary hearings can require multiple witnesses, while grand juries decide whether to indict based, in general, on the testimony of a case agent.

The Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, on the other hand, writes that preliminary hearings protect an individual’s right to a lawyer, due process, confrontation and speedy trial.

“District Attorney Torrez wants to remove judicial involvement in the determination of who is dangerous and who gets to be locked up until his office can find the time and resources to prosecute the case,” NMCDLA past-president Matthew Coyte said in the news release. “His latest request seeks to remove judges and defense attorneys from the probable cause determination entirely.”

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