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DA shuts ‘revolving door’ for one repeat offender

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Christopher’s Heh’s life has taken a turn in the past month.

For much of the past year, Heh was an example of what law enforcement officials call a revolving door at the Metropolitan Detention Center – suspects being repeatedly arrested and released due to prosecutors voluntarily dismissing thousands of cases in Bernalillo County criminal courts.

Christopher Heh

Christopher Heh

Heh, 31, was booked into the MDC 13 times in 2016, according to Nataura Powdrell, a spokeswoman for the jail. A state court website shows that he racked up 11 felony cases in 2016 alone, primarily for drug and property crime offenses.

Yet, in all of the 2016 cases against Heh, prosecutors filed “nolle prosequi” documents – basically a dismissal of charges by the prosecution, with the option of refiling. Because of the dismissals, as Heh’s arrests in 2016 stacked up, the court’s pre-trial services rated Heh as the lowest risk possible – and he was often released from jail. That’s because the rating doesn’t take into effect any prior arrests except for those with charges still pending.

But now Heh’s facing an aggressive prosecution, and several of the cases that had been dismissed have been indicted. As of Saturday night, he was in jail for several pending criminal cases.

Raúl Torrez, who took over as district attorney at the start of the year, said Heh accounted for only a handful of the 2,500 to 3,000 cases that have been dismissed since a Case Management Order was enacted in Bernalillo County criminal courts. The order, which was approved by the state Supreme Court, went into effect in February 2015 and set strict deadlines for prosecutors to turn over evidence to the defense.

The rules were created in part as a response to overcrowding at MDC, which was also in part the result of criminal cases dragging on for up to years without resolution.

Torrez said he has assigned a team of prosecutors to review all the cases that were dismissed but can still be refiled. He said the team members will decide which defendants pose the greatest risk to the community and aggressively prosecute them.

“There’s a lot of defendants in the community, felons who were referred to the office, who were not charged because of those tight deadlines,” Torrez said in an interview.

Albuquerque police Chief Gorden Eden said he’s not aware of which specific defendants prosecutors plan to target, but he’s encouraged by the practice, which he said could stop the revolving door at the detention center.

“One of the things that we’ve been working with Mr. Torrez is establishing priority defendants,” the chief said in an interview. “We haven’t had that conversation” with prior district attorneys.

Heh, the son of a former Albuquerque police officer and mayoral candidate, is one of those suspects whose cases were dismissed but who prosecutors are now pursuing.

So far this month, grand juries have returned indictments against Heh in three separate cases, according to a state court website.

Prosecutors also attempted unsuccessfully to have Heh held without bond, trying to use a constitutional amendment passed by voters last fall that allows certain defendants to be held without bail when awaiting trial.

“The defendant is a dangerous individual who continues to harm this community and will continue to harm this community if he is released,” Deputy District Attorney Tim Callaway argued during a recent hearing.

Second Judicial District Court Judge Stan Whitaker denied the request to hold Heh without bond.

“I’m not sure this is the case where he needs to be detained under the new bail amendment,” he said during a recent court hearing.

Britt Marie Baca-Miller, Heh’s attorney, had argued that her client should be released on his own recognizance and monitored so that Heh can “get help for issues that led to police contact.”

Whitaker denied the defense’s request, too. Heh remained jailed Saturday night on two $15,000 bonds and two $5,000 bonds, according to the jail’s website.

Baca-Miller contended her client has been targeted by prosecutors because he has been the subject of several media reports in recent years and his father is a high-profile figure in the community.

A spokesman for the district attorney denied that prosecutors were targeting him for any reason other than his lengthy criminal history.

Journal staff writer Katy Barnitz contributed to this report.