March 25, 2020

NM public defender staff member tests positive for COVID-19

The New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender announced Tuesday that it closed its Santa Fe office after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. 

According to a press release from the LOPD, the staff member had limited contact with other lawyers or clients, partially because of visitor restrictions at the Santa Fe detention center, Santa Fe’s district court and LOPD’s own office closures. About two weeks ago, the LOPD closed all of its physical offices, opting to conduct business only by phone or video conferencing. 

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur, in a statement, said the employee will stay at home and that the LOPD will continue to limit person-to-person interaction. 

“We’re thankful our employee is able to quarantine at home at this time,” Baur said. “We will continue to be proactive with measures to protect the health of our employees, our colleagues in the justice system, and our clients.”

The LOPD was one of the first institutions in the state’s criminal justice system to close their offices and call on the state Supreme Court to significantly increase restrictions. State courts were eventually ordered by the high court to postpone all new jury trials, limit the number of people in courtrooms and conduct all business over the phone or by video, except in emergency situations. 

District attorneys across the state followed suit, asking for limited court activities.

Last week, 5th Judicial District Attorney Dianna Luce confirmed with NM Political Report that she and five other employees were self-quarantined after they came into contact with someone who had been tested for COVID-19

The LOPD has also been continuing to push for the release of non-violent and misdemeanor inmates to reduce crowding in state detention centers. 

A spokeswoman for LOPD told NM Political Report that while they have not succeeded in a mass release, it has been relatively successful in releasing inmates on a “case by case basis.”

Sandoval County Attorney Robin Hammer filed a petition in state district court last week to release inmates incarcerated for non-violent and misdemeanor offenses, but withdrew her request. In her motion to dismiss the case, Hammer cited improving jail conditions and increased inmate distancing in the county’s detention center.