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When Antonio Cruz of Hobbs was arrested in June 2017 after reportedly breaking things in his girlfriend’s home – including dishes and a flowerpot – he asked for a public defender to be appointed to represent him.
The request was granted. But at the same hearing in Magistrate Court, Cruz, then 31, ended up pleading no contest to misdemeanor criminal damage to property of a household member. There is no transcript or audio recording of the proceeding, so it’s unclear exactly what led to the plea.
On Thursday, the state Supreme Court reversed his conviction, unanimously finding that the judge should not have accepted a plea without first providing Cruz with an attorney – a right guaranteed under the Constitution.
“This case serves as a reminder that fundamental constitutional rights cannot be jettisoned for the sake of judicial efficiency,” Justice Barbara Vigil wrote in the court’s opinion. “At every level of our courts, the Constitution must stand as an immovable bulwark to secure the rights of individuals in every case. Central to our criminal justice system is the right to counsel, which in turn ensures the protection of all other rights. It is the right to counsel that was denied in this case.”
More than a month after Cruz pleaded no contest, an attorney with the Law Offices of the Public Defender entered an appearance on his behalf and filed a motion to withdraw the plea he made without a lawyer to advise him.
“Counsel argued that Defendant, who had not completed his high school education and who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, had not entered into the plea ‘knowingly nor voluntarily as [he] was unable to fully comprehend the penalties and collateral consequences of his actions, nor [could] he conceptualize probable cause,’ ” the opinion says. “Counsel also argued that Defendant’s ‘quality of assistance was the lowest of the low – None; pro-se representation while burdened by his mental deficiencies.’ ”
But magistrate court judge Craig La Bree denied the motion to withdraw the plea and sentenced Cruz to almost a year on probation. Cruz was also ordered to pay a total of $323 in fines and court fees. No one from the magistrate court in Hobbs returned calls seeking comment. La Bree died in May 2020, according to an obituary.
The case was appealed to the 5th Judicial District Court – which dismissed the appeal – then to the Court of Appeals, which upheld the conviction, according to a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts. The state Supreme Court reversed their decisions, raising the issue of every defendant’s constitutional right to counsel.
Kimberly Chavez Cook, an appellate defender with LOPD, said it’s unknown how often defendants are essentially denied a right to an attorney since cases only surface when someone makes an issue out of it.
“I think this opinion is a really wonderful reminder to us how crucial (constitutional rights) really are to the process and to ensuring fairness in the process,” Chavez Cook said. “They should not be given pro forma treatment. They need to be given meaning, and the Supreme Court reminded us all of that today.”