March 20, 2020

Citing COVID-19, Sandoval County attorney seeks court order to release non-violent inmates

Commissioners for New Mexico’s fourth largest county on Thursday asked a judge to release non-violent jail inmates “during the State of Emergency caused by the COVID-19 virus,” New Mexico In Depth has learned.

Sandoval County Attorney Robin Hammer on Thursday filed a three-page petition for writ of mandamus — a fast-tracking procedure used in exceptional circumstances — asking the District Court to blunt the “serious health risk” of the new coronavirus to those inside the jail by releasing people immediately.

Hammer’s petition also asks the court to prohibit future bookings of anyone else charged with a misdemeanor or non-violent felony into the detention center until Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lifts her State of Emergency declaration.

The petition is set to be heard Tuesday by Chief District Judge George Eichwald.

The move marks the first time a voice from outside New Mexico’s criminal defense community has called for releasing inmates amid the growing COVID-19 crisis. Hammer has a different client. She represents Sandoval County leadership, including the jail itself, not people locked up in the jail. 

Over the weekend, Bennet Baur, the state’s chief public defender, made a similar request in a letter to the state Supreme Court. He also cited the potential health risks should the virus find its way into a jail. And days later, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association asked the state’s highest court to identify “vulnerable populations” who could be released from jails.

Reached by telephone Thursday evening, Hammer, a longtime prosecutor and former lead investigator for the now-revamped Albuquerque Police Oversight Commission, declined to comment “beyond what is in the writ.”

The document says Sandoval County housed 204 inmates as of Thursday, and no one had, as of that date, tested positive for COVID-19. About 100 staff watch over the jail.

Adhering to instructions from Lujan Grisham’s administration to stop the spread of the virus by social distancing — staying at least six feet away from other people — is difficult, if not impossible in a jail, Hammer wrote.

A jail’s close-quarters confinement creates health risks during a public health pandemic — one that outweighs “the lower level of risk to the public posed by persons accused of misdemeanor or non-violent felony crimes” or even some people being held in the jail post-conviction, her petition says.

Attached to the petition is an affidavit sworn out by the health service administrator for the medical company that operates in the jail under contract with Sandoval County. The administrator said “it is to the benefit of both staff members and detainees to limit the contact between individuals during this health emergency.” 

The petition was sent to Baur and to 13th Judicial District Attorney Lemuel Martinez.

Martinez did not return messages seeking comment.

In an interview, Baur commended Hammer and the county, calling the petition a “strong measure in the middle of a health emergency.”

“We appreciate Sandoval County stepping up on behalf of the health of people in its facility,” he said. “Just thinking about what could happen: Someone arrested can bring the virus into the facility, and someone could get it inside and bring it out. Here we have, not just an advocate for incarcerated people, but a custodian of people in custody sounding the alarm. This is an important petition.”

This article first appeared on New Mexico In Depth and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.