Recent state Supreme Court orders regarding rules governing criminal and traffic cases for misdemeanors — including DWI offenses — are drawing mixed reviews from those working in the justice system. criminal.
The changes, which primarily affect cases filed in the Santa Fe County District Court and the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court, are temporary and part of a pilot project, according to orders released last week. A statement from the Courts Administrative Office called the changes an attempt to alleviate “the difficulties in the justice system due to the COVID-19 pandemic”.
“These changes to the court process will help to effectively use the resources of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the courts to move cases toward resolution while respecting constitutional rights and protections,” the judge said. of Supreme Court Briana Zamora in a statement.
But the measures — particularly one that removes the requirement for prosecutors to make law enforcement officers available for pre-trial interviews with the defense — have come under scrutiny from lawyers. who say the move could tip the scales in favor of prosecutors.
“We are actively trying to understand how this order will apply in practice,” Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur wrote in an email on Tuesday, referring to the order that changes pretrial interview practices. “This has the potential to be a major limitation on our ability to uncover the truth in cases.
“The limitation of officers’ pre-trial interviews is based on the assumption that the initial police report contains all of the information necessary for us to fairly resolve a case,” Baur added. “But if we don’t have the opportunity to talk to the police between the arrest and the trial, both sides are missing out on important information. This is important for all of us, because there are serious consequences for the people facing criminal charges, even with a misdemeanor.”
Prosecutors and police, however, welcomed the removal of the requirement, saying it would ease the burden on their staff.
” This will allow [deputies] to focus on patrols in the county,” Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza wrote in an email Tuesday. DWI convictions.”
- Eliminate a requirement that the state schedule pretrial defense interviews with law enforcement in misdemeanor cases in the Santa Fe County Trial Court and Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court.
- Allow district courts to hold settlement conferences in criminal cases facilitated by a judge – other than the judge presiding over the case – by suspending the ban on judicial participation in plea discussions.
- Require status conferences at the start of criminal proceedings involving defendants who are not in prison.
- Make virtual hearings the default for traffic violation cases in statewide magistrate courts and Bernalillo County Metro Court. Previously, there was a presumption that trafficking cases would be heard in person.
District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said Monday that the new Supreme Court rules appear to have been developed in response to information she provided about low DWI conviction rates in the First Judicial District, in part due the fact that law enforcement officers did not show up in such cases.
She said eliminating the requirement for a pre-trial interview would reduce the pressure on law enforcement officers to show up for court hearings and interviews when they could be patrolling. the streets or take a well-deserved rest.
Santa Fe Deputy Police Chief Ben Valdez agreed.
“Removing the requirement for pre-trial interviews on misdemeanor cases will give us the opportunity to keep our staff in the field to continue providing services,” Valdez wrote in an email Tuesday.
As for holding pretrial settlement conferences and status hearings aimed at reaching faster resolutions, Carmack-Altwies said those requirements are directly modeled on the practices his office and local magistrates have employed. after grand juries were suspended due to the pandemic.
“It works well in our district,” she said. “I really think that made us a model for what the Supreme Court wanted to do.”
But New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association president-elect Jennifer Burrill criticized the changes, adding that members of the group were not consulted on the new rules.
“Words are important in law,” she said. “I’m not sure whoever wrote this fully understands the criminal justice system.”
Eliminating the pre-trial interview requirement for the state does not eliminate the need for defense attorneys to know the facts of their clients’ cases in order to provide them with an adequate defense, Burrill said.
The changes, she added, essentially shift the onus of questioning potential witnesses — including law enforcement — from the prosecution to the defence.
Burrill said the language regarding judge-assisted settlement conferences is also problematic, as it could force defense attorneys to attend conferences without having the information they need to properly advise their clients on plea agreements. .
Burrill expressed concern that the rules were created without public input.
“Supreme Court justices often haven’t been in the courtroom for a long time,” she said. “It’s good for them to hear from people on the ground, and it’s troubling that the Supreme Court bypassed the public comment section of the rulemaking process.”
Courts Administration Office spokesman Barry Massey defended the process.
“The Court has received contributions from justice partners to grow the initiatives,” he wrote in an email Monday, pointing to DA offices in the First and Second Judicial Districts, Albuquerque Police, Santa Fe Police and Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office as well as judges. in the First Judicial District and Bernalillo County Metro Court.
He said the pilot nature of the changes will allow the courts to assess how they are working and revise them if necessary.
Maggie Shepard, spokeswoman for the Public Defender’s Law Offices, confirmed that Deputy Chief Public Defender Jennifer Barela was among those who contributed to the rules.
But the weight given to the agency’s opinions is unclear.
“Public defenders have been asked for their thoughts on pre-trial interviews, and we have consistently and strongly expressed how important they are in our efforts to provide effective assistance to our clients,” Baur wrote in an e-mail. -mail Tuesday.