Our View: Repeal of criminal ordinances might be bad for safety - Albuquerque Journal

Our View: Repeal of criminal ordinances might be bad for safety

The ongoing repeal of City of Rio Rancho criminal ordinances will likely create more public-safety problems than it solves, unless the city hires another prosecuting attorney.

Last year, the repeal of the city DWI ordinance took effect, leaving suspects to be charged under state law. That means DWI cases within Rio Rancho must go to Sandoval County Magistrate Court instead of Rio Rancho Municipal Court.

Now, the governing body is half-way through the process of repealing ordinances against assault, battery, aggravated battery, assault on a peace officer and driving on a revoked or suspended license, all at the petty misdemeanor level. Those offenses would also go to magistrate court under state statutes.

Governing body members need to consider a second reading of the repeals, presumably at their July 23 meeting. Officials say they plan to remove more ordinances later.

City Councilor Bob Tyler, a former law-enforcement officer and sponsor of the repeals, says they’ll toughen sentences, hold offenders more accountable and save the city money. It seemed sensible.

Then, we started hearing and asking questions. The answers cause concern.

We believe the move is well-intentioned. It just seems the unintended consequences haven’t been considered well, much less addressed.

When the city repealed the DWI ordinance, 500-plus cases moved to magistrate court. The 13th Judicial District Attorney’s office hired another prosecutor to handle them.

For 20 years, the DA’s office has prosecuted only DWI and domestic-violence cases at the magistrate level. Those attorneys have never prosecuted assault, battery, aggravated battery, assault on a peace officer or driving on a suspended or revoked license in magistrate court — and DA Lemuel Martinez said they won’t start now.

He’s in the final months of his term, but it’s unlikely his successor will take on that burden.

In 2019, the offenses in question accounted for more than 700 charges in municipal court. Some cases surely contained more than one charge, but the related caseload would still be in the hundreds.

The DA’s office would need yet another prosecutor for the new load, and it’s unlikely they’ll get enough money, given pandemic budgets.

Tyler and City Attorney Greg Lauer said if the DA won’t prosecute the cases, Rio Rancho Police officers will. In municipal court, a city lawyer handled all prosecution, meaning cases moved out of municipal court will become a huge added burden for police.

Yes, they already prosecute cases in magistrate court. But adding hundreds of cases will mean many more hours sitting in a courtroom and dealing with legal paperwork and procedures, while pitted against defense attorneys who have the advantage of law degrees.

That’s unfair to officers and bad for public safety.

When our police are stuck in court, they can’t respond to calls, investigate crimes and arrest offenders. This sounds like a boon for criminals.

Tyler says officer prosecutions are how things are done in Albuquerque.

Crime rates are high there. Why would we emulate that hot mess?

If city officials repeal these ordinances — or if the city prosecutor is over-burdened — they need to hire another prosecutor to handle magistrate cases. If we’re saving so much money by not having to pay for public defenders and incarceration of municipal suspects, the savings should cover the cost.

If the city can’t afford another prosecutor, then repeals need to stop now. Public safety is a not a place to skimp in the budget.

Furthermore, repealing the ordinances in question moves those charges up in severity from petty misdemeanors in municipal court to “full-court” misdemeanors in magistrate. Not all cases should be stepped up.

For instance, the legal definition of battery includes not just striking someone, but also touching someone in a “rude, insolent, angry or hostile manner.” Someone who pokes a neighbor in the shoulder with one finger during an argument over dog poop could be charged with battery.

That’s a truly petty misdemeanor. Police should be able to choose which level of charges to file, based on the situation and their discretion.

We know all such offenses in unincorporated Sandoval County are cited into magistrate court. Just because the county doesn’t have another mechanism for more minor cases doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t.

Officials didn’t ask the municipal judge, police union or DA for input on the current repeals — and none of those people support the change.

They say they consulted the police chief, but RRPD spokesmen were either not willing or not allowed to comment when the Observer asked. Do PD leaders believe the changes are good, or were they ignored and ordered to keep quiet?

When public-safety experts oppose or keep quiet about legal changes, we’re concerned.

The governing body needs to either budget for another city prosecutor or stop the repeals here, to protect the safety of the community.

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