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House Republicans seek review of NMSP metro operation

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New Mexico State Police officers talk to Chief Tim Johnson while on patrol during the Metro Surge Operation in Albuquerque over the summer. Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Seven Republican members of the New Mexico House of Representatives are calling for a review of the State Police Metro Surge Operation in Albuquerque last summer after learning that the majority of the people arrested have since been released from jail.

The letter – sent earlier this week to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, State Police Chief Tim Johnson, New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts Director Arthur Pepin, and New Mexico Administrative Office of the District Attorneys Director Henry Valdez – highlights reporting by KOAT-TV, which found that 88% of the people arrested on felonies during the surge operation are no longer in custody.

Those people have either been released pending trial or because the case was dismissed. Of the 168 people arrested on felony charges, KOAT-TV found 18% have been arrested again on felony charges and 16% have failed to show up for court appearances.

“These findings related to Operation Surge can only be described as scandalous as it was reported that many of these suspected felons were released without even being required to post bail,” the letter states.

The majority of defendants in New Mexico are no longer required to post bail after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016. Now, prosecutors ask a judge to detain a suspect if they believe the person is a danger to society or a flight risk; however, they cannot currently hold someone just because they are considered a flight risk. In the case of the metro operation, KOAT-TV found prosecutors asked for detention in just 14 of the 168 cases, which means they did not ask for detention in almost 92% of the cases.

Matthew Garcia-Sierra, the communications director for the House of Representatives Republican Leadership Office, said the review the lawmakers are asking for would encompass more than just the metro operation. The letter asks for law enforcement, district attorneys, judges and other local government officials to examine all of the prosecution and judicial actions taken in relation to the operation to determine why the defendants were released.

“This is totally focused on the court system and how the criminals are flowing through it, and how we can take a look at what went on during the surge,” Garcia-Sierra said. “And find solutions to make sure that when these type of operations are put in place, we aren’t just letting everyone back out on the street and we’re actually making things safer, not just ramping up numbers to make it look good.”

According to records provided to the Journal from State Police four months ago, the majority of the felony arrests were for drug possession and receiving or transferring stolen motor vehicles, rather than violent felonies.

Jennifer Burrill, vice president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said it makes sense that people who were arrested on drug possession or other non-violent felonies wouldn’t be held until trial.

“Our goal in the criminal justice system is not to incarcerate everyone forever,” she said. “… I think it’s important to identify that not everyone should be held forever and that really should be saved for the worst-of-the-worst crimes.”

The Journal reviewed about 118 of the felony cases in September and found about half of those had been dismissed due to an officer not turning in discovery, not attending hearings, the case needing more investigation, or a lack of reasonable suspicion, or search and seizure issues.

In response to questions about the statistics cited in the Republican’s letter, a State Police spokesman wrote that Chief Johnson agreed it was unacceptable.

“As the leader of his organization, Chief Johnson takes responsibility for the portion that was directly caused by the action or inactions of his department,” spokesman Mark Soriano wrote in an email. “Although he can’t take responsibility for all of it, as some of it lies with the judicial system, he is more than interested in working with the DA’s office and the courts to ensure this doesn’t happen again and to provide the highest level of public safety for the citizens we serve.”

He said State Police is already in the process of conducting an internal inquiry to determine the department’s shortcomings and make necessary changes in the future.

Barry Massey, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said Pepin just received the letter and will communicate with the representatives after he has a chance to thoroughly review it.

A spokesman for Gov. Lujan Grisham said the KOAT-TV report “underscores some of the glaring institutional issues we face as a state when it comes to criminal justice.”

“The governor is clear: Everyone has to own that they can and must do better, and that includes us as a state,” Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in an email. “The chief has said publicly that NMSP is working to re-file charges in these cases and make right what went wrong.”

Sackett also referenced the Supreme Court’s plan announced Monday to form a 15-member committee of attorneys, justice system officials and elected leaders to consider possible changes to pretrial detention procedures.

“The governor absolutely supports, as one measure, the Supreme Court’s plan to study the matter … and looks forward to the result of that inquiry and to evaluating how we can ensure that justice is done in New Mexico while building a better, more responsive and more interconnected public safety system across jurisdictions statewide,” Sackett wrote. “Additionally, other crime and criminal justice-related pieces of legislation will be under consideration for the 2020 legislative call.”

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