ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – The New Mexico Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a nearly four-year-old drunk driving case against Officer Abraham Baca.
Baca, 37, was an off-duty state police officer when he was pulled over in May 2010 for weaving out of his lane on a remote road north of Espanola. Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s deputies arrested him for aggravated DWI.
The case has taken many twists and turns.
According to Baca’s attorney Ben Ortega, this case is much bigger than a DWI case.
“The 5th amendment of the U.S. constitution and article 2, section 8 of the state constitution are at stake,” Ortega said. “If the state is successful at this, then nobody who gets tried in a lower court, like a magistrate court can feel comfortable if they’re acquitted.”
Ortega, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, is arguing double jeopardy, which bars any criminal defendant from being tried twice for the same offense. Ortega said Baca was acquitted of DWI in magistrate court.
But prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office disagree, saying a magistrate court judge dismissed the case on a technicality.
“There was no acquittal here,” said prosecutor James Grayson with the Attorney General’s Office. “What we have is a procedural termination of the trial without a determination of guilt or innocence at the defendant’s request.”
Four Years, Four Courts
In August 2010, Baca was scheduled to stand trial before Rio Arriba County Magistrate Judge Alex Naranjo. He dismissed the case when a prosecutor failed to appear at a pre-trial conference.
The state refiled, and a non-jury trial began in Naranjo’s courtroom in October 2010. However, during trial, the defense argued the state’s case and all its evidence, including testimony of arresting Rio Arriba sheriff’s Sgt. Martin Trujillo, should be excluded because prosecutors violated a rule when refiling the drunk driving charge against Baca.
Naranjo dismissed the case against Baca a second time. Ortega argued that amounts to an acquittal.
“With all their evidence excluded, the magistrate judge found my client Abraham Baca not guilty,” Ortega said.
The state appealed Naranjo’s ruling one week later in district court and won. District Court Judge Stephen Pfeffer denied the defense’s motion to dismiss on double jeopardy grounds, saying Naranjo dismissed the case on a procedural error, not evidentiary. Prosecutors argued Naranjo’s decision was not an acquittal.
The defense then appealed to a three-member panel in the state Court of Appeals. The judges unanimously agreed to toss the case, saying Baca was tried once and could not be tried again on the same charge.
The state appealed again, this time before the New Mexico Supreme Court.
“A legal ruling that is unrelated to factual guilt or innocence is a procedural dismissal that the state can appeal,” Grayson said of Naranjo’s decision. “There was no double jeopardy violation because there was no acquittal.”
Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson indicated that the Judge Naranjo may have been confused about the difference between an acquittal and procedural dismissal. In New Mexico, magistrate judges are not required to have a legal background.
However, Ortega said if a trial judge makes a decision to acquit someone, that cannot be reviewed.
“If the judge makes a ruling mid-trial, whether it’s correct or not, and that ruling is in any way related to some of the evidence going to guilt or innocence, then jeopardy terminates,” Ortega said.
KRQE News 13 reached out to Naranjo and Pfeffer, both retired, for comment but have not heard back.
The Supreme Court justices can take however long they want to determine whether double jeopardy applies in Baca’s case.
If the justices decide double jeopardy does not apply, the case will be remanded to district court for trial. If that happens, Ortega said he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I have to do everything in my power to prevent the government, the New Mexico state government, from undermining everyone’s double jeopardy rights, and that’s what I intend to do,” Ortega said.
Baca resigned from state police shortly after his arrest, according to Ortega.
In September 2010, Baca had his law enforcement certification suspended for one year, put on probation for two years and ordered to ethics training, alcohol screening and eight hours of community service, according to Law Enforcement Academy Director Jack Jones.
Ironically, Baca is now a sergeant with the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office, the same agency that arrested him.
Sheriff Tommy Rodella hired him as a part-time civilian employee in the spring of 2011. By September that year, he was a full-time deputy. Baca was promoted to sergeant on October 16, 2011, in charge of the evidence room, according to a spokesman for the department.
“Abraham is a well-trained, well-versed law enforcement officer, coming from state police ranks,” Rodella said. “He has training that is invaluable to this office.”
Rodella also said he hired Baca because he had never been convicted in his DWI case.
Baca tearfully told News 13 Wednesday he wants this whole ordeal behind him.
“I just want to move on and let things die, so I can move on,” Baca said.