ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There were a lot fewer drunken driving arrests in Bernalillo County last year, as DWI cases filed in Metropolitan Court fell by more than 1,000 after the COVID-19 pandemic closed bars, nightclubs and entertainment venues.
But that didn’t mean there were fewer DWI-related accidents. In fact, there were twice as many as there were in 2019, according to a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office.
DA’s communications director Brandale Mills-Cox said that the number of DWI cases filed last year fell from 2,967 to 1,924.
“Even though there was a significant reduction in overall cases, the number of accident-related cases doubled,” Mills-Cox said.
Thirty-nine of the 110 traffic accidents involving fatalities in Bernalillo County last year involved alcohol, according to a study done by the University of New Mexico for the state Department of Transportation.
While it would appear there were fewer people driving under the influence, Chief Metropolitan Court Judge Maria Dominguez said the DWI cases filed last year tended to include more people “with deeper substance abuse issues.”
Tonie Abeyta, Metropolitan Court managing attorney for the Public Defender’s Office, said that with bars being closed “we didn’t have many cases of a person having one drink too many, and with remote learning we were not seeing college students.”
Almost 80% of those charged with DWI in Bernalillo County last year qualified to be represented by the Public Defender’s Office – up from 55% the previous year.
The pandemic forced Metropolitan Court to go virtual.
It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t perfect but misdemeanor criminal cases like domestic violence, criminal trespass and drunken driving continued to be processed throughout the year.
“It was a huge adjustment,” Dominguez said. “Over the course of the year we made great progress.”
She said it helped that Metropolitan Court judges had been using video arraignments for years.
After the court obtained licenses to use Zoom for court hearings and bench trials, the judges found there was still a lot of work to do.
“We had to make sure people got into the right virtual courtroom,” Dominguez said.
The court set up an electronic sign-up system and virtual waiting rooms for defendants, attorneys and witnesses. The court also set up a virtual “break out room” where police officers who were prosecuting some misdemeanors like traffic tickets could meet with defendants and/or their attorneys to see if the case could be resolved without a trial.
From last March until earlier this month there were no jury trials, though anyone facing a sentence of 90 days to six months in jail could request a jury trial. Some cases had to be delayed.
But Dominguez said prosecutors tried to keep criminal charges in many cases below the 90-day jail threshold by dismissing less serious charges and there were virtual trials before a judge that were handled over computer and telephone.
In-person bench trials were only allowed under “extraordinary” circumstances and had to be approved by Dominguez. Those circumstances included defendants where mental competency was an issue or there was a speech or hearing impediment or language barrier.
Public defender Abeyta said virtual hearings involving an interpreter were difficult.
“The translation became very disjointed in some cases,” she said. “And if the defendant was on a telephone instead of Zoom it was difficult to pick up visual clues to help the translator. There were the issues with “mute” and “unmute.”
Interpreters had difficulty translating for defendants who were using telephones to participate in the online hearings.
Prosecutors and police said they had few problems with the courts moving to a virtual system during the pandemic.
“All our training now has to be done virtually,” Mills-Cox said. We have made the switch to paperless systems, electronic discovery and a more streamlined process. Overall, we have become more efficient and effective in prosecution.”
An APD spokeswoman said, “Metro court settings went well. There were no dismissals due to the COVID pandemic and video settings. The courts adapted and as the officers transitioned to Zoom setting and video trials, everything worked well.”
Dominguez said prosecutors and attorneys from the Public Defender’s Office cooperated in overcoming technical problems over the past year.
Challenge for lawyers
The transition to virtual and telephone was more difficult for attorneys in the Office of the Public Defender.
“More people qualified for our services because of the pandemic,” Abeyta said.
“Many of our clients don’t have a phone or have cellular phones with limited minutes,” she said.
For instance, waiting on a cellphone for 30 minutes for a hearing to start can take a bite out of a typical 200 minutes-a-month low-cost cellphone plan, and that doesn’t include the length of the hearing itself.
“We had people running out of minutes or unable to pay their telephone bills,” Abeyta said.
Telephones were the only way for many to attend a virtual court hearing because poor people have less access to computers, she said.
“We set up our conference rooms so an attorney and client could socially distance but use computers to be on Zoom,” Abeyta said.
She said the pandemic highlighted the lack of technology available to people with low incomes.
Dominguez said the court also set up computers at the courthouse for attorneys and their clients to use.
“Some of the private attorneys did not have offices that allowed computer access for the attorney and their clients while being socially distant,” Dominguez said.
She said some of the virtual court might continue after the pandemic ends for some hearings.
“We have to be careful not to lose the humanity of judicial system,” she said.