It all sounds fine in the pages of a criminal procedure textbook, where preliminary hearings lead to a more effective and efficient system of justice. Cases initiated when police arrest someone are carefully screened by prosecutors. Witnesses are secured, and – faced with more solid evidence sooner – defense attorneys may be more inclined to recommend a plea early in the process. Court dockets are scaled back, and judges can focus on the most important cases.
So in theory, the 2nd Judicial District Court’s push away from grand jury indictments in favor of criminal informations followed by preliminary hearings is textbook perfect. Except it ignores the reality of life in crime-ridden Bernalillo County, where violent crime and property theft are rampant.
Judges have told District Attorney Raúl Torrez they plan to further reduce grand jury time to six days a month – a quarter of the time available at one point. Torrez and Mayor Tim Keller have asked the state Supreme Court to intervene. They say we are finally making a dent in crime and less grand jury time means fewer felony charges will be brought. They also say preliminary hearings are harder on victims because they can require multiple appearances and will move cops from the street to court. Bottom line: Grand juries do not require the preparation or level of evidence preliminary hearings do to move a case forward.
Minitrials put demands on police, victims
The District Court, in turn, asks justices to reject that request. The court says prosecutors can achieve better results through preliminary hearings with better-prepared cases and fewer acquittals, voluntary dismissals and mistrials. They dispute claims that APD’s already shorthanded staffing will be further depleted. And if we had federal rules, including allowing reliable hearsay, that might well be true.
But the rules of evidence apply in preliminary hearings – meaning multiple witnesses are often required – and all are subject to cross-examination. So the preliminary hearings can become minitrials. Prosecutors point out that in stolen car cases, for example, both the officer who made the arrest and the victim who didn’t give the thief permission to take the vehicle have been required to appear. In drug cases, more than one responding officer has been required.
And prosecutors stress the impact on victims. When a hearing is rescheduled – which the DA says often happens because a defendant doesn’t show up – the victim has to reschedule their life to be back in court. And after someone is arrested, there could be as little as six days for a hearing to be held – with victim and witnesses – to meet court deadlines.
Preliminary hearings not ready for prime time
Both sides present statistics in their letters to the high court that are questioned/challenged by the other. Sadly, the dispute has a “food fight” feel at times. Yet there is no argument that the DA’s Office gets about 10,000 felony referrals a year from local law enforcement. About 4,000 move forward, with the others not meeting the standard for successful prosecution or defendants are moved into diversion programs. (Unfortunately, Torrez hasn’t helped his cause by not personally and regularly attending meetings of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, where these issues are supposed to be hashed out .)
There are ways to improve the criminal justice system and reduce the reliance on grand jury indictments. But other changes need to be made for the preliminary hearing track to actually work in real life as advertised. To move on one front but not the other is reckless and dangerous.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.