SANTA FE, N.M. — Technically, it appears that Scott Owens could benefit because police filed the most recent DWI charge against him in Municipal Court, rather than in a state court that also handles drunken-driving cases.
But prosecutors and police say that’s unlikely.
When Santa Fe police arrested Owens for, and charged him with, driving drunk on Siler Road last weekend, they had a choice where to file the charge: in Santa Fe’s Municipal Court or in Santa Fe County Magistrate Court.
Police chose city court. Had Owens been charged in Magistrate Court, he would have faced a potential penalty of 364 days in jail if found guilty. That’s the maximum penalty available in the state court system for a second DWI conviction, and Owens has a prior DWI conviction from 2001.
Owens made headlines three years ago for his part in a drunken driving crash outside Santa Fe in which four teenagers were killed. He was drunk behind the wheel when his Jeep Cherokee and the car the teens were riding in collided on Old Las Vegas Highway. But a jury acquitted Owens of multiple vehicular homicide charges in the case, and prosecutors hadn’t asked the jury to also consider the lesser charge of DWI. Owens’ lawyer successfully argued in court that the car carrying the teens was driving erratically before the crash.
The most that the Municipal Court could hand out for a second conviction is 179 days behind bars, according to Santa Fe City Prosecutor Alfred Walker.
Municipal Court is limited in terms of how jail time is meted out, Walker said. “In Municipal Court, there are no jury trials. And there is a jury possible in Magistrate Court. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that if you’re going to go to jail for six months or more, you have a right to a jury.”
Walker also said that, in practice, where a DWI charge is filed rarely makes much difference at sentencing. “In most cases, nobody gets the maximum anyway. In most cases, everybody typically gets the minimum requirements,” he said.
In the most recent DWI case, Owens was pulled over on Siler Road by Santa Fe police just after 2 a.m. March 17. Police told Owens they believed he was slurring his speech and was intoxicated, and Owens, who insisted he had not had anything to drink, struggled to perform the field sobriety tests and refused to submit to a breath test.
He was booked into the Santa Fe County jail and, because he didn’t take the breath test, was charged with aggravated DWI. The arresting officer then filed the charge in Municipal Court, a choice that’s is pretty common among Santa Fe officers.
“The officers have discretion,” said Santa Fe police Capt. Aric Wheeler. “Primarily, for misdemeanor and traffic cases, we prefer Municipal Court because it’s the city’s own court.”
Wheeler added that it rarely makes a practical difference in the disposition of the case. “The reality is, I’ve never seen a second time DWI offender ever spend 100 days in jail,” Wheeler said. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Walker also said that, in his experience, there isn’t much difference which court has jurisdiction. Typically, second convictions are handled about the same way, with judges in either court dishing out only a few days behind bars, along with other penalties.
“Every once in a while, I see a lengthy jail sentence in Magistrate Court,” Walker said. “Those are cases where the person has another kind of history or several DWI arrests, but only a couple of convictions. But usually there’s not much of a difference.”
Owens’ prior DWI conviction from 2001 can be used against him at sentencing in either court.
If Owens is convicted, he faces a minimum of eight days in jail, because his DWI charge is considered “aggravated.”
A judge has discretion to sentence a convicted defendant up to the maximum without having to explain how he or she arrived at a sentence or fine. But in Owens’ case, nothing in the law that would require the judge to consider the 2009 case to enhance Owens’ sentence for the present offense.
Owens was not convicted of any charge at his vehicular homicide trial – the District Attorney’s Office decided not to ask the jurors to consider DWI as a lesser option, believing that might have complicated presentation on the far more serious vehicular homicide charges.
Owens did spend 22 months behind bars awaiting trial – which was more jail time than he would have received on a DWI conviction.
It was stipulated at trial that Owens was driving drunk in the crash that killed the four teens. “I could bring that up in sentencing,” Walker said. “But everybody knows who Scott Owens is. I don’t have to mention it. It’s there.
“And the danger there is, you don’t want to say to the judge, ‘Punish him on the other charge he was acquitted on.’ ”
Owens’ defense attorney could also request that the case be moved to Magistrate Court. Owens is scheduled to be arraigned in Municipal Court on Wednesday.