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DA pushes violent crimes to federal court system

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

With a distinctive walk, a dark bandana covering his face and a silver handgun on his hip, Paul Salas racked up nearly 50 armed robberies of Albuquerque stores and restaurants over a seven-month period – taking time to steal tacos, sandwiches and cellphones after cleaning out cash registers and security safes.

“He seems to perceive that he is doing the community a favor,” wrote one state district judge after reviewing an audio interview of Salas after Albuquerque police finally arrested the 5-foot-4-inch, 220-pound convicted sex offender in March 2017.

Paul Salas

Salas, 46, called his armed holdups “licks” and followed his own version of a robber’s creed.

• No robbing from the South Valley (where his family resided).

• No robbing from Albuquerque’s so-called “War Zone” neighborhood (too many cops patrol there).

• Never rob a store if children are around.

And, according to what Salas told police, “when the sun drops, it’s time (to rob).”

Back in early 2017, a state district judge in Albuquerque refused to keep Salas in jail pending trial on 47 counts of armed robbery. The judge cited a lack of supporting evidence from prosecutors and set bond at $100,000 cash only.

But a week later, on March 29, 2017, federal prosecutors took the case against Salas to a U.S. magistrate judge in Albuquerque, who ordered Salas stay in federal custody pending trial. The judge concluded that no release conditions would assure the community’s safety or Salas’ return to court to face the charges.

Salas is now serving 24 years in federal prison because the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque to prosecute him in federal court.

Many crimes violate both state and federal law, so Salas pleaded guilty to the federal crimes of interference with interstate commerce, using a firearm during a crime of violence and failing to register as a sex offender.

Some 201 state criminal cases, mostly involving guns or violent offenses, have been preliminarily adopted for federal prosecution from the DA’s office over the past two years, according to newly released data from the office of District Attorney Raúl Torrez and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Of those, 147 cases have been formally initiated in federal court, by indictment or complaint.

Over the past two years, Torrez has devoted three state prosecutors to help screen and prosecute cases in federal court. Now, he plans to ask state lawmakers for more funding to “ramp this up.”

“I’m going to make a very strong case for why we should do this, not only because of who we’re dealing with, which are the most violent and most dangerous people,” Torrez said, “but also, frankly, because of the fact that this (federal system) is the most reliable place to remove the most dangerous people from the streets of Albuquerque.”

The federal system often has tougher prison sentences, and federal courts operate under a “fundamentally different framework” for ensuring certain violent or repeat offenders are detained pending trial, said Torrez, a former assistant U.S. attorney.

The new data shows Salas and 72 other defendants had pretrial detention motions filed against them by prosecutors in both state and federal court.

The 73 cases originally were filed in state court, Torrez said, while the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided whether they met the criteria for federal criminal prosecution.

But the new data shows that state court judges opted to release pending trial slightly more than half of the 73 defendants. When their cases moved to federal court, only 7% were granted pre-trial release, under certain conditions.

“It should get people’s attention when you have a 93% detention rate on the north side of Lomas (the location of Albuquerque’s federal courthouse) and with the same set of defendants you get a 49% (detention rate) on the south side of Lomas (the site of the state district courthouse),” Torrez said. “There’s something that needs to be carefully examined by policymakers in Santa Fe to try to understand how we can have these kinds of different outcomes.”

The different outcomes “should lead people to ask very hard and serious questions about whether the state system is functioning in the way that the citizens of community expect it to function,” he added. “And if it isn’t, then maybe we should start looking at other models.”

U.S. Attorney John C. Anderson told the Journal that the initiative with the DA’s office is the embodiment of the Department of Justice’s priority, set by U.S. Attorney Generals William Barr and his predecessor Jeff Sessions, on fighting violent crime nationwide.

Here in Albuquerque, he said, there’s been no noticeable pushback from federal lawyers or defense attorneys.

“They understand why we’re doing it,” Anderson said, “and they live here just as we do and recognize the reality that our violent crime rates are too high.”

A ‘most effective strategy’

In the case of Paul Salas, state District Judge Stan Whitaker denied the prosecutor’s request to keep him in custody, noting that the DA’s Office hadn’t presented any video or audio recordings or testimony from a single witness, including law enforcement.

Whitaker set a $100,000 cash bond and Salas remained in jail while the DA’s office asked for help from the U.S. Attorney’s office.

After prosecutors filed a federal complaint charging Salas in the armed robberies, U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Molzen held a hearing on whether he should be held in federal custody pending trial.

Molzen decided to keep him in jail, noting Salas’s history of violence or use of weapons, the prison time he faced if convicted in the armed robberies, and the strong “weight of the evidence,” federal records show.

“I attended his federal detention hearing,” Torrez said. “It took less than seven minutes.”

Considering Salas was accused in nearly 50 armed robberies, and admitted to some of the crimes, his prosecution proves the federal-state partnership can have a dramatic impact on reducing crime, Torrez said.

“If you take one Paul Salas out of the equation, you can have a measurable impact on the reduction of commercial robberies and armed robberies.”

Before Torrez was elected in 2016, he said, the DA’s office wasn’t sending cases for possible federal prosecution “in any sort of systematic way.” But then-U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez helped craft an agreement to take federal-eligible cases from the DA’s office, Torrez said, and Anderson, the current U.S. attorney, expanded the program, which still has strict criteria.

Chiefly, the types of DA cases referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office involve felon in possession of a firearm, using or possessing a firearm in connection with a crime of violence or a drug trafficking crime, and robberies involving a threat of force, such as a knife or a gun.

About 90% of the time, the penalties are stiffer under federal law, Torrez said.

For instance, felon in possession of a firearm is a fourth-degree felony under New Mexico law. With an 18-month maximum sentence under state law, an offender could be out of prison in nine months with good time.

In the federal system, depending on the criminal history of the defendant, a felon in possession could get up to 10 years in prison.

“In terms of focusing on the most dangerous people, this is probably the most effective program and the most effective strategy we have,” Torrez said. “I think that as long as we are unable to reliably take those dangerous folks off the streets through the state system, you can expect this office to continue this program.”

Anderson said the federal system in New Mexico so far has been able to handle the increased caseload.

“We don’t see any sunset or end to this (right now),” Anderson said. “I’d like to hope that we get violence in our cities and state to the place where resources could move elsewhere, but I think that’s a long way off, given the challenge that we have right now.”

Torrez said his office can’t rein in violent crime without strong partnerships with “local law enforcement, federal law enforcement and then the engagement of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

“From my perspective, when I’ve had conversations with people in Albuquerque, they want and deserve to be safe, and frankly they don’t really care if my prosecutors are going into federal court or state court. They just want us to make them safe.”

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