Bernalillo County judges adding new court hearings to reduce 8,000 felony case backlog

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Bernalillo County’s District Court judges will add more court dates to help the District Attorney address a backlog of 8,000 unindicted felony cases.

The Second Judicial District Court’s Chief Judge Nan Nash announced the new “special” preliminary hearing calendar on Thursday afternoon, in the first response to recent criticism levied against the court for its so-called Case Management Order, or CMO, that’s said to have contributed to the backlog.

The 2nd Judicial District Court announced Thursday the addition of new court dates to address an 8,000 uncharged felony case backlog.

In a news release Thursday afternoon, the Second Judicial Court announced it will add “two additional weekly preliminary hearing tracks” that Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office “can fill with backlogged cases.” The new court dates are currently scheduled to take place on Friday, July 21, 2017.

Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez recently raised the issue of an 8,000 felony case backlog in a critical report about the effects of the district court’s “Case Management Order.”

The CMO started in February 2015, following years of overcrowding at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center due to a backlog of untried, pending cases that were languishing in District Court often times for two to three years. The order forced the DA’s office to follow strict timelines related to court dates and strict rules related to the availability of case evidence at a suspect’s first appearance in District Court.

If any rules are broken, the case is dismissed with the option to refile. DA Torrez says refiling is difficult and time consuming given the resources of the office.

Torrez has criticized the CMO in his report, calling it “unjust” and claiming that too many cases against accused criminals are being dismissed based on violations of the strict rules. His office believes the CMO case dismissals are directly connected with Albuquerque’s spike in crime, giving accused criminals a free pass on charges until they’re refiled, if ever.

The District Court’s addition of “two weekly preliminary hearing tracks” means there’s more time on the court calendar for the District Attorney’s Office to schedule initial hearings for the backlog of felony cases. The court says all other criminal cases “will be brought on the regular preliminary hearing calendars or grand jury days already currently provided” to the DA’s office.

Second Judicial District Court Chief Judge Nan Nash

The Second Judicial District Court ended its news release Thursday, writing in part that it, “stands ready to work with the District Attorney’s Office whenever possible.”

But while the court has offered to add more court time to deal with backlogged felony cases, it has yet to agree to any changes to the CMO, and their tone toward doing so may be decidedly different.

An additional letter sent directly to Torrez on Thursday shows the court’s differing perspective on the effect of the CMO.

In the letter signed by Second Judicial District Court Chief Judge Nan Nash and Presiding Criminal Judge Charles Brown, the judges say they, “strongly dispute” Torrez’s claims that hundreds of cases have been dismissed for CMO rule violations, and that the CMO has caused the 8,000 case backlog and a rise in Albuquerque’s crime.

In your recent Report on the Impact of the Case Management Order on the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice System (“Report”), you represent that “hundreds” of cases have been dismissed by the Second Judicial District Court (“SJDC”) for technical violation of the Rule LR2-308 NMRA, commonly referred to as the Case Mangement Order (“CMO”). You blame the SJDC and the CMO for the backlog of an alleged 8,000 cases and ultimately for a rise in crime in Albuquerque. While we strongly dispute your assertion and in fact have statistics that tell a different story about your office’s dismissal of hundreds of cases and your inability to secure convictions in the cases you do take to trial, we do agree that cases should be resolved on the merits.

–Chief Judge Nan Nash & Presiding Criminal Judge Charles Brown, Second Judicial District Court

Read: Second Judicial District Court’s response to DA Torrez

In a written statement, Torrez’s office said it was “unfortunate” that the Second Judicial District Court dispute’s assertions that the CMO has caused problems.

It’s unfortunate that the District Court continues to deny that the Case Management Order (CMO) has had an adverse impact on our ability to deliver justice to the citizens of Bernalillo County. The Court’s response also seems to misunderstand the central premise of our report. The fact that there are currently more than 8,000 uncharged felony cases in this office has undeniably contributed to the spike in crime in recent years and the primary reason for that backlog is the CMO. Not only has the direct dismissal of cases and the suppression of evidence contributed to our backlog, so too have the voluntary dismissals by the office out of fear of arbitrary sanctions issued under the CMO. The first step in fixing a problem is admitting that you have one. I am the first to admit that we need to dramatically improve our performance at trial in order to secure more conviction but first I need to make sure that we can even get these cases to trial in the first place.

While I appreciate the District Court’s offer to expedite these cases the second time around the more fundamental question is why the Court can’t get that done the first time?

–Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez

The DA and the Second Judicial District Court are expected to meet on July 6 and July 10 for “workshops” on potential changes to the CMO.

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