January 26, 2016

Three Strikes law passes final House committee

Joe Gratz


After a lengthy debate, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill in a party-line vote aimed at expanding New Mexico’s current three strikes law.

State Rep. Paul Pacheco

State Rep. Paul Pacheco

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, told the panel that he spent time in drafting the bill and making sure it wouldn’t present similar problems as similar laws did in other states. He acknowledged that his bill was not a universal fix to the ongoing crime problem in New Mexico, but that it is a start.

“I know this is not a silver bullet,” Pacheco told the committee. But, he said, “It’s one step in a larger group of things we have to address.”

Pacheco pointed out to the committee that no one has ever been charged or convicted under the current three strikes law.

“There is absolutely no documentation that it had any effect,” Pacheco said of the current law.

Pacheco said he brought along various family members of a number of victims in the event that committee members would like to hear from them. He addressed accusations that some of his witnesses who were victims of crimes were not relevant to the bill.

“They are not here as a prop,” Pacheco said of the family members sitting behind him.

He said the family members approached him and wanted a chance to speak to committee members.

“They are here because they want to be,” Pacheco said.

A handful of people on each side of the issue spoke out for and against the bill.

Those in support of the bill were law enforcement and corrections officials as well as the widow of a victim, Julie Benner, whose husband Gregg “Nigel” Benner was shot and killed while on duty as a law enforcement officer.

“We need to fix the rules. I want this passed,” Benner said.

She went on to emphasize that she was not being used by Pacheco or anyone else.

“I am not being used by any political party,” Benner said.

Those who spoke out against the bill, mostly representing defense attorneys, said the bill was overly broad and could have unintended consequences.

Using a series of hypothetical questions, House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, continued the dialogue about unintended consequences. He proposed three scenarios in which, he said, the bill could unintentionally send someone to prison for life.

Pacheco told the committee that he was open to discussion with Egolf and House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, about tightening up language in the legislation.

After the committee when NM Political Report approached Pacheco to ask about a possible amendment, he declined to comment.

“I read your article, and I don’t feel like commenting,” Pacheco said, referring to a recent article about Pacheco’s expert witnesses. The story quoted two other legislators questioning the use of the Garcia family as expert witnesses in a previous committee hearing on the legislation.

Egolf told NM Political Report he is in the process of drafting an amendment to the bill and that he plans to meet with Pacheco before the bill heads to the House floor.

Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, was the only Republican member to comment on the bill. He praised a portion of the bill that would include some home burglary offenses.

“It seems to me that your home is a place where you need to feel safe,” Dines said.

The committee ultimately voted 7-4 to pass the bill the House floor. The House could start debate on the bill as early as Friday.