Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
The New Mexico Supreme Court has launched a new effort to speed up the processing of criminal cases and relieve law enforcement officers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe from making certain court-related appearances – thus allowing them to stay on the streets to fight crime.
The slate of changes is aimed at streamlining court practices “to help our justice partners and courts make the best use of their time and limited resources,” said Chief Justice Michael Vigil in a statement.
The changes have been lauded by the Albuquerque Police Department and prosecutors, while state public defenders have questioned whether the push for efficiency – at least in misdemeanor cases – could compromise defendants’ rights and actually backfire by forcing more jury trials.
Under new pilot programs in Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court and in Santa Fe County Magistrate Court, prosecutors will no longer be required to schedule pretrial interviews with law enforcement officers in misdemeanor cases, such as DWI and battery on a household member.
Defense attorneys assessing the cases against their clients prior to a trial will have to rely on police reports and recordings such as lapel videos, as well as criminal complaints that set out the criminal charge and the reasons someone is arrested.
Traffic violation cases in magistrate courts statewide and in Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court generally will continue to be conducted remotely – a practice adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That will allow police officers, the defendant and witnesses to avoid traveling to a courthouse for in-person trials before a judge and can free up time for officers for other law enforcement duties.
Previously, there was a presumption that traffic cases would be heard in person.
In addition, district courts will be permitted to hold settlement conferences in felony criminal cases and assign a different judge to facilitate possible plea discussions and ensure the parties exchange evidence in a timely manner. Status conferences will be required early in a criminal proceeding for defendants not in jail, to allow cases to resolve faster and permit witnesses, law enforcement and crime victims to avoid having to appear at a later hearing.
“When possible we want to prevent law enforcement officers, crime victims and witnesses from unnecessarily making multiple appearances in court proceedings,” said Justice David Thomson in a press release issued by the court.
Across the state and at the Albuquerque Police Department, law enforcement coverage has been strained by too few officers trying to meet the increased demand for public safety. Some law enforcement agencies throughout the state have stopped responding in person to property crimes because of a lack of officers.
Meanwhile, prosecutors say that some victims and witnesses, particularly during the height of COVID-19, have been reluctant to appear for the required pretrial interviews and hearings, sometimes resulting in criminal cases being dismissed.
The Supreme Court initiatives were developed with input from judges, prosecutors and public defenders.
Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez told the Journal, “The Supreme Court’s changes are modest but they are a welcome start in building a more just and equitable system.”
The most controversial appears to be the pilot programs’ elimination of the requirement that prosecutors make law enforcement available for pretrial interviews in misdemeanor cases.
Barry Massey, Supreme Court spokesman, told the Journal at least 40 states have no such requirement.
Torrez said eliminating pretrial interviews in misdemeanor cases “will free up many hours” for prosecutors and will “relieve some of the burdens imposed on law enforcement officers in misdemeanor cases.” But he said APD’s staffing shortage still will be impacted by the officers having to participate in pretrial interviews in felony cases, while also appearing for testimony at preliminary hearings and trial.
In a March 4 letter to the court, Torrez wrote, “… Pretrial interviews require police officers to appear for court-related activities in greater numbers and for more time than is necessary to adjudicate cases in a fair and just manner. These police officers are too frequently taken off the streets and away from their duties.”
Chief Public Defender Ben Baur told the Journal that pretrial interviews of police officers are important in certain misdemeanor cases.
“We are interested in efficiency because we are so under-resourced we want to be able to move things, but it can’t be at the expense of our clients.”
“Clearly the court with the best of intentions is trying to find efficiencies in the system, but I believe that this may actually lead to more trials because if we can’t interview the officers without a trial, there are cases where we may end up going to trial simply because we need to ask them those questions.”
He added that he isn’t sure if defense attorneys could seek a subpoena to get a pretrial interview, adding, “We’re going to have to see how this is interpreted.”
“Probably, initially,” Baur added, “this will reduce some burden upon law enforcement and district attorneys but if there are more trials, not necessarily. It is definitely adding to the burden of the defense because we will have to find other ways to seek these interviews or potentially do more trials.”
APD Chief Harold Medina said, “Overall, this is a welcome change that will help move cases through the system and allow officers to do their jobs in the field.” Medina also renewed his call on Thursday for pretrial detention criteria to be adjusted to keep more violent offenders jailed pending trial.