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New rule aims to unclog courts, cut jail population

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The state Supreme Court ordered dramatic changes Wednesday to speed up felony criminal cases in Bernalillo County that will put prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges under the gun to meet deadlines and dispose of cases more quickly.

“The rule is designed to address the efficient delivery of justice and the speedy trial rights of defendants as well as overcrowding at the jail in Bernalillo County,” said Arthur Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts in Santa Fe. “This is a model that addresses those concerns and has worked many places around the country.”

The length of time it takes to dispose of felony cases in Bernalillo County – two months more than the national average – is a major factor in jail overcrowding.

The Supreme Court put teeth in the rule to go along with the new mandates.

Missing deadlines set out in the new rule will carry sanctions for attorneys and the Supreme Court will be tracking which judges are allowing cases to fall behind the timetables set out in its order, which takes effect Feb. 2.

“The rule is going to change the way we do business,” said Nan Nash, presiding judge in Bernalillo County District Court. “During the initial period it is going to result in a lot of extra work and confusion. Ultimately, it will improve our case management system.”

Among other changes, the new rules say all criminal cases will be assigned to a three-track system. The simplest cases in Track One must be set for trial within 180 days, Track Two trial dates within 270 days and Track Three – for the most complex cases – within 365 days.

The new rule also set deadlines for plea deals in an effort to end the practice of last-minute bargains that clog the court system.

Additional changes include:

• The District Attorney’s Office will have to turn over evidence to the defense much earlier than under current procedures.

• Prosecutors and defense attorneys will be subject to court-ordered sanctions for failing to meet deadlines.

• Negligence or the press of usual business will not be acceptable excuses for failing to meet deadlines.

Matt Coyte, head of the New Mexico Defense Lawyers Association, said the rule, although a step in the right direction, “is not the solution to the problems plaguing the criminal justice system.”

Coyte said defense lawyers have been arguing for several years that existing rules require judges to release pre-trial detainees on unsecured bonds or no bonds at all, but that isn’t happening.

“This new rule will only work when law enforcement and the district attorney’s office stop overcharging citizens and prosecuting more people than their offices are capable of handling in a diligent fashion,” Coyte said.

District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said her office was still reviewing and considering the order handed down by the Supreme Court.

“We have great concern regarding the order, and hope to address those concerns with our partnering agencies in the coming weeks,” she said.

Chief Public Defender Jorge Alvarado said an upside to the new rule is that it provides a clearer definition of what a “speedy trial” is by setting out strict time limits but that it presents problems in how to assign attorneys.

“We have to remember that each of these cases involve a human being attached to it,” Alvarado said.

Pepin acknowledged that “all the parties involved still have concerns about the parts of the rule which impact their operations.”

Plea-deal deadlines

Last-minute plea deals on the eve of trial are not uncommon in the district court.

Because so many felony cases in Bernalillo County end in plea bargains – more than 98 percent – judges tended to be lenient in granting delays. Judges also tended to “double book” their trial calendars in expectations that cases would end in plea bargains.

Judges extending and re-extending trial dates for months because attorneys said they were in plea negotiations has been an even more common problem than last-minute plea deals.

The new rule sets a deadline of 10 days before trial for a plea bargain to be filed. If that deadline is missed, the judge will have to issue a written finding of “extraordinary circumstances” in order to accept the deal and even then won’t be bound by the sentence outlined in the agreement.

Under the system outlined by the Supreme Court on Wednesday, judges will have to explain such delays in writing for each case.

Under the new three-tier system, criminal cases filed after July 1, 2014, will be assigned to a new calendar of seven judges.

An estimated 3,000 older cases will be assigned to a panel of three judges.

Estimates are it will take them anywhere from 18 months to three years to completely clear the older cases.

On the new cases, except at trial, the judges will be interchangeable, hearing motions and making rulings in cases assigned to other judges.

The clock starts ticking on those cases, under the new rules, at felony arraignment or waiver of arraignment in District Court. The clock can be held up for several reasons such as when a defendant has to be evaluated for competency, is a fugitive or a case is appealed to a higher court prior to trial.

The order lays out specific timelines in each track for the filing of motions, responding to motions, witness interviews and disclosure of scientific evidence. It limits extensions of the time limits to 15 days on any filing but only if the judge issues a written finding of good cause.

The judges will be monitored in monthly reports sent to the Supreme Court.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys will be subject to sanctions for failing to comply with the deadlines including reprimands, dismissal with or without prejudice of the criminal case, suppression or exclusion of evidence and a monetary fine imposed on a party’s attorney or that attorney’s employing office (in the case of public defenders and state prosecutors).

“The court shall not accept negligence or the usual press of business as sufficient excuse for failure to comply,” the rule states.

Overcrowding relief

The changes are the result of a move to relieve overcrowding at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center.

In 2013, the state Legislature stepped in and passed a law creating a commission to review issues surrounding the jail overcrowding and related issues in the courts. It put the state Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the Courts in the center of getting representatives of District Court, Metropolitan Court, the jail, the county, police agencies, and the state probation and parole divisions involved in solving the problem.

The commission is chaired by Pepin.

One study done for the commission found it took an average of eight months after indictment to resolve a felony case, even though 98 percent of them end with a plea bargain or dismissal of charges before trial. The national average was closer to six months.

This created a “culture” within the court that allowed for delays as cases became more backlogged.

Other changes initiated by the commission have gotten the jail population down from a high of nearly 3,000 to just below 2,000.

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