ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Maddening, absurd and unjust.
Those are just some of the words Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez is using to describe a special set of court rules said to have created a backlog of 8,000 unindicted felony cases in the Albuquerque-area.
The critique is aimed at Bernalillo County District Court’s two-year experiment, known as the “Case Management Order.” The CMO was designed and implemented as a way to clear out the county’s notoriously jammed up district court calendar that caused overcrowding at the jail and left defendants waiting years for a resolution to their case.
Torrez is now asking for an overhaul to the Case Management Order as his office has released a 23-page report highlighting problems with the order, while drawing a link between the order and the city’s overwhelming rash of crime.
According to the report, The 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s office believes the CMO’s application has been “arbitrary, unpredictable and unjust, all at the expense of the State and public.”
While the New Mexico Supreme Court has touted the success of the CMO, Torrez sees the rule as having done something entirely different. He thinks the CMO has put the backlog in the hands of the District Attorney’s Office, while delaying, possibly erasing the chance of justice for thousands of victims.
“It’s one of the most consequential aspects of the criminal justice system in Bernalillo County right now,” said 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez, speaking of the CMO.
“Failure to adjust or amend the CMO could really have a significant impact on their lives and or public safety,” said Torrez.
The “Case Management Order”
The 2nd Judicial District Court entered into the Case Management Order in early 2015 following years of problems with defendants waiting too long to effectively get “their day in court.” The order is being imposed by the New Mexico Supreme Court.
In April, Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels outlined the problems that lead up to the CMO, in a letter to Torrez.
“When the CMO was issued, the Second Judicial District had a backlog of approximately 6,000 untried cases,” wrote Daniels. “Cases often took two to three years to resolve, creating serious speedy trial problems.”
Those problems were also felt in the Metropolitan Detention Center, where close to 3,000 inmates were being held in 2013.
Torrez says he recognizes the prior issues.
“There’s no doubt that the CMO was intended to address those issues,” said Torrez. “And we don’t have any intention of moving back to a system where defendants waited for years for case resolution, or we have an overcrowded jail.”
In response, lawmakers forced stakeholders from the Albuquerque-area criminal justice system to collaborate on a solution. Local judges, public defenders, law enforcement leaders, prosecutors, court administrators and others formed the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Review Commission. The group came up with the CMO.
Mainly, the CMO put tight timelines and strict rules on prosecutors to keep cases from stalling. For example, inmates now have to be arraigned in district court within seven days of their indictment. Judges also started asking prosecutors to provide virtually all case paperwork and evidence (discovery) by the time of arraignment. Any timeline violations usually means the case is dismissed.
But the order also didn’t come with more money for more prosecutors in the already pressed Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office, which is said to screen about 20,000 different criminal cases a year.
“There were no additional resources allocated with the implementation of this rules,” said Torrez.
Top New Mexico court officials have deemed the CMO a success.
“Those delays are being eliminated so that we catch up with the rest of the world in terms of processing cases in an appropriate timeline,” said Arthur Pepin during a 2015 meeting with local criminal justice officials. Pepin is the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts which oversees the state’s numerous court districts.
But Torrez says he sees the “success” differently when looking at the community. In a recent interview with KRQE News 13, Torrez said the CMO “didn’t do anything to make” Albuquerque a safer community.
“It was a mechanical fix and it worked to clear the dockets and cut down on the jail population, but it didn’t do anything to solve crime,” said Torrez.
Bernalillo County’s MDC jail population now hovers around 1,300 inmates, less than half it was in 2013. The New Mexico Supreme Court also claims “trials have increase by 250 percent” in the 2nd Judicial District and the court’s “chronic backlog was eliminated.”
But Torrez says the DA’s office has seen a 40 percent reduction in pending property crime cases and a 40 percent decrease in pending violent crime cases between 2014 and 2016. Meanwhile, the Albuquerque area has seen a 117 percent increase in vehicle theft, a 42 percent increase in robberies and 103 percent increase in murders in the same time frame.
Torrez believes the CMO has played a major factor in those statistics.
“We’re not adjudicating cases,” said Torrez. “We’re not fundamentally resolving these cases based on assessments of guilt or innocence.”
Instead, Torrez says judges are throwing out cases based on the CMO’s strict rules, giving accused criminals a free pass until their case gets refiled, if ever.
“We’re dismissing cases and throwing cases out on technical grounds,” said Torrez. “We’re not making the criminal justice system function the way it should.”
The DA’s CMO Impact Report
Torrez is backing his words with a report published last week, highlighting some of the issues that the DA’s office says are beyond their control. Torrez’s report was sent to the Bernalillo County Justice Coordinating Counsel that reviews the CMO.
“Any glitch in this system results in a windfall for defendants,” said Torrez.
One of the cited problems comes with cases being dismissed because a jail forgets to transport an inmate to court.
“We don’t have direct control over transportation,” said Torrez.
An example comes from a September 2016 case involving Patrick Anthony Martinez. A convicted felon, Martinez was arrested when Albuquerque Police caught him passed out in a running car with a gun and drug paraphernalia that police thought was used to smoke meth.
A judge dismissed Martinez’s case a month later in October 2016 because he didn’t make it to court. During the court hearing, Martinez was actually in the Sandoval County’s Jail being held on other criminal charges. Martinez is now in prison for a different crime. He pleaded no contest to a charge of shooting at a woman.
“The failure to just put someone on a bus and bring them to the courthouse is the reason we should dismiss a case? That just defies common sense,” said Torrez.
Other issues have been caused by the court itself. A judge dismissed Devin Nieto’s assault and child abuse case in 2016 after the court set Nieto’s arraignment on the 8th day following his indictment. The CMO requires accused criminals to be indicted by the 7th day. The case was dismissed per the CMO.
Torrez’s office describes several other issues in the CMO report that speak to the short amount of time prosecutors have to collect evidence, concerns that the defense attorneys are practicing “gamesmanship” in order to get cases dismissed on the CMO’s rule, and concerns with the time allowed to gather pre-trial interviews.
“It’s frustrating for victims, it’s extremely frustrating for law enforcement, and it’s hard to explain,” said Torrez.
Refiling cases isn’t simple either.
“Every time that we re-file, we have to issue a whole new round of subpoenas, we have to arrange for witness and victim testimony, we have to organize all the discovery, everything in the process has to start all over again,” said Torrez.
Torrez’s office is now offering suggestions to change the Case Management Order. Foremost, Torrez is asking for judges to get some say on when to use the rules. Right now, the rules are mandatory.
“We think the district court judges in Bernalillo County should have more discretion,” said Torrez.
Torrez is also asking judges for leniency on what evidence has to be provided at arraignment, and some leeway in when a hearing has to be pushed back.
“We should not have cases dismissed because of transportation issues, we shouldn’t have cases dismissed because of scheduling issues,” said Torrez.
Without a change, Torrez thinks the system will fail more victims and create even more crime.
“I’m concerned without some accommodation from the CMO, you’re going to see significant dismissals and suppression of evidence, and we’re not going to be able to provide justice and that would be a real shame,” said Torrez.
Torrez will formally meet with the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council on Thursday to propose the changes to the CMO.
As for the 8,000 unindicted felony case backlog, Torrez says they’ll go through the cases one by one and see which ones can still be charged.