Editorial: Court streamlining looks promising; make sure it works as intended - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Court streamlining looks promising; make sure it works as intended

The scales of justice outside the Bernalillo County Courthouse.

Police chiefs and sheriffs across New Mexico for years have contended law enforcement officers spend too much time in court when they could be patrolling the streets.

Promising initiatives announced last week by the state Supreme Court are aimed at both freeing up officers’ time and making the court process more efficient.

Pilot programs in Bernalillo County Metropolitan and Santa Fe County Magistrate courts will no longer require prosecutors to schedule pretrial interviews of law enforcement in misdemeanor cases such as DWI and battery on a household member. Currently, those interviews allow the defense to question officers about the case prior to trial.

Supreme Court spokesman Barry Massey says at least 40 states don’t require prosecutors to make officers available for pretrial interviews in misdemeanors. The initiatives were developed with input of judges, prosecutors and public defenders. The court also implemented rules statewide to:

• Allow district judges to assign a retired judge or one not connected to the case to oversee a settlement conference and facilitate a possible plea discussion in felony cases. Such settlement conferences have been occurring in Albuquerque but will now be available statewide.

• Mandate status conferences be held early in criminal proceedings for defendants not in jail.

• Allow officers and deputies to continue to appear remotely in traffic cases, a practice instituted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The goal is to move criminal cases through the system more efficiently. “When possible we want to prevent law enforcement officers, crime victims and witnesses from unnecessarily making multiple appearances in court proceedings,” explained Justice David Thomson. It’s a laudable goal, especially considering the burgeoning crime rate.

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina, who stresses the need to focus on violent offenders, calls the initiatives “a welcome change.” Bernalillo County District Attorney (and state attorney general candidate) Raúl Torrez says the changes are “modest” but “a welcome start.”

Torrez says eliminating pretrial interviews for misdemeanor cases will free up hours for prosecutors and relieve some time constraints on officers. But he cautions APD’s chronic officer shortages will still be impacted by having to participate in pretrial interviews in felony cases and appear for testimony at preliminary hearings and trials.

Efforts at resolving criminal cases more quickly and keeping police on the streets to fight crime are worthwhile. However, Chief Public Defender Ben Baur, who says his office also faces resource challenges, believes the pilot programs may go too far. He worries not requiring pretrial interviews with officers in misdemeanor cases may lead to more trials. He says if defense attorneys can’t interview officers without a trial, “there are cases where we may end up going to trial simply because we need to ask them those questions.”

That needs to be monitored. Streamlining practices to make the best use of everyone’s time and resources while ensuring the rights of defendants should be the goal. The misdemeanor pilot programs should be evaluated after six months to ensure they’re working as intended.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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