Lawmakers to introduce criminal justice reform bills

Attempts at criminal justice reform are not new for the New Mexico Legislature, but success in lessening criminal penalties and revamping processes has seen mixed results. But reform advocates and some lawmakers said they are confident this is the year criminal justice reform proposals will gain more traction and possibly be signed into law. 

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, who has been a long-time advocate for criminal justice reform said a politically progessive shift of the Legislature could help move those types of bills forward.  

“I think a lot of champions have emerged,” Maestas said. “So I anticipate a whole slew of criminal justice type bills to increase public safety and make the system more accountable”

One issue Maestas said he plans to address is language in state law that gives law enforcement officers who are under investigation arguably more rights than other citizens under investigation have been afforded in practice. 

The law Maestas plans to address details rights of officers subjected to internal investigations and includes things like limiting interrogations to two in a 24 hour period, limiting interrogation time limits and requiring no more than two interrogators at a time. Maestas said the language in the law is unusually similar to language in most police union contracts. 

“It’s like an HR protection in state statute,” he said. 

Maestas said the law itself is antithetical to basic freedoms afforded by the U.S. Constitution. 

“It’s even referred to in popular culture as the peace officer bill of rights,” Maestas said. “Which totally contradicts the premise of the U.S. Bill of Rights, which is protections against the government not protections for government.”

Maestas said he also wants the regulation of law enforcement licensure moved from the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy to the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department and plans to sponsor a bill to do so. 

Maestas said law enforcement is one of the few professions, including teachers and lawyers, in the state that is self-regulated. 

“The Law Enforcement Academy has to be re-reworked,” he said.

NM cannabis producer sues state, claims retaliation

A prominent New Mexico medical cannabis producer filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the state Department of Health, alleging the department violated a previous court order and discriminated against the company regarding cannabis plant limits.  

Albuquerque-based attorney Jacob Candelaria, who is also a New Mexico state senator, filed the motion on behalf of Ultra Health, a medical cannabis company that has previously taken the state to court numerous times. In the motion, which effectively reopened a previous lawsuit against the state, Candelaria argued that the Department of Health, which oversees the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, failed to obey a court order that plant limits for medical cannabis producers be based on reliable data and that the department discriminated against Ultra Health specifically. 

The case that was reopened was originally filed in 2016 and argued that the state’s then-limit of 450 plants was not enough to provide an adequate supply of medical cannabis to the more than 26,000 medical cannabis patients at the time. In November 2018 a state district judge ordered the state’s Department of Health to come up with a data-based plant limit for medical cannabis producers by March 2019. 

With five days until the state’s deadline, then Secretary of Health Kathyleen Kunkel sent an email to Jane Wishner, a policy advisor for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, about the department’s next steps in coming up with a data-driven limit on cannabis plants. The email chain began with the former director of the Medical Cannabis Program explaining that New Mexico seemed to be the only state with a medical cannabis program that used plant counts as a limit, opposed to facility size. Wishner, in reply, contemplated taking a look at the state’s medical cannabis law and coming up with a temporary plant limit for producers.

Legislators seek to reform drug laws

New Mexico lawmakers have tried to take on drug addiction and deadly overdoses for decades. During previous years, lawmakers from both major parties attempted to address opiate epidemics in the state through both increased penalties and more progressive measures. 

This year, with not only a Democratic majority and a Democratic governor, but also a new incoming class of  more progressive Democrats in the Senate, the state could see movement on bills that would lower penalties for drug possession as well as public health minded approaches to addiction. 

Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, told NM Political Report that she plans to sponsor a bill that would allow for safe and legal places to use illegal narcotics, often referred to as safe injection sites. The idea, Armstrong said, is that people would be able to bring already obtained narcotics to a designated location where there would be medical professionals on hand to assist in the event of an overdose and provide resources for recovery. 

“It makes sense to me, for public safety, for the health and safety of the individual and a different attempt to try and get folks help,” Armstrong said. 

Armstrong, who has consistently sponsored healthcare related bills during her six years in the Legislature, said safe consumption sites would hopefully address concerns in many communities regarding used needles scattered around public areas like parks and playgrounds. But, she said, it would also address over-criminalization of substance addiction. 

“It is definitely a healthcare issue,” Armstrong said. “But it is a criminal justice reform as well, because this is a safe place with no threat of being arrested.

NM judge rules medical cannabis use allowed while on house arrest

A New Mexico state district judge ruled this week that detainees in Bernalillo County’s house arrest program are allowed to use medical cannabis while serving out their sentence.  

In her ruling, Second Judicial District Judge Lucy Solimon wrote that Bernalillo County’s Community Custody Program (CCP) is, in effect, the same as parole. New Mexico’s Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, as of 2019, allows medical cannabis patients who are on parole or probation to continue their use of medical cannabis. 

“Although CCP is not specifically mentioned in the Compassionate Use Act, [Bernalillo] County fails to demonstrate that CCP should be treated differently than probation or parole,” Solomon wrote. “Therefore, it appears as though the Compassionate Use Act does apply to defendants on CCP as it does to defendants on probation or parole. The issue of whether medical cannabis patients on house arrest can use medical cannabis goes back to 2019 when Albuquerque resident Joe Montaño was sentenced to the Community Custody Program after his seventh drunk driving conviction. Montaño, who was already a registered medical cannabis patient, previously told NM Political Report that he didn’t hide his cannabis use from his case worker during a home visit.

2020 Top Stories #3: Black Lives Matter and social justice movements

See our entire countdown of 2020 top stories, to date, here. This year seemed to really pile on. Besides a contentious election and a worsening COVID-19 pandemic, New Mexicans saw numerous protests and pushes for social justice improvements. 

This summer, groups like Black Lives Matter increased their presence and the frequency of their marches. 

While the majority of the demonstrations ended peacefully, there were a handful of instances that turned violent. 

A lot of attention was spent trying to piece together what exactly happened at what started as a prayer session around a statue of the controversial conquistador Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque. While some were trying to tear the statue down, counter protesters tried to play interference. One of those counter protesters allegedly shot someone during a scuffle. 

In the aftermath of the shooting, there were still many questions about what role Albuquerque police were supposed to take as the incident escalated.

NM cannabis industry group gives priorities for a legalization bill

It is likely that the general public will not see drafts of recreational-use cannabis legalization proposals from the legislature until next month, but one group is already suggesting language and looking for a legislative sponsor. 

The New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce publicly released an early of a recreational-use cannabis bill that they say highlights what those in the industry see as important issues. The chamber is made up of more than 40 cannabis organizations, ranging from educational and legal groups to actual cultivators and dispensaries. 

The chamber’s director, Ben Lewinger, said the group worked tirelessly to come up with language that puts the state first. 

“Our members have an agreement that what’s best for their individual companies right now is not necessarily what’s going to be best for the future of cannabis in New Mexico,” Lewinger said. 

The chamber’s early draft includes portions that were included in previous legislation, but also adds to them. 

One issue that has been publicly discussed, but not included in previous attempts is how to ensure cannabis businesses are mostly local. 

The chamber’s proposed solution is to only allow businesses with at least 60 percent of the company owned by those who have lived in the state for two years. Lewinger said the chamber wanted to ensure New Mexicans have a stake in cannabis sales, but also not hinder the flow of capital from outside the state. 

“We were trying to strike a balance between it being a true homegrown New Mexico industry, but not limiting the ability for out-of-state money to come into a New Mexico run company,” he said. 

Oklahoma, which only has a medical cannabis program, albeit one of the most prosperous in the country, has a provision that requires 25 percent of ownership is locally based. But Oklahoma is also facing a legal challenge in federal court over that requirement. Lewinger said given the pending Oklahoma case, he wouldn’t be surprised if New Mexico faces a similar challenge, if the bill moves forward as written.

2020 Top Stories #5: COVID-19 in prisons

See our entire countdown of top stories, to date, here. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the lives of almost every New Mexican, including those locked up in jail or prison. 

In April, just a month after New Mexico saw its initial cases of COVID-19, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office faced a legal challenge over how the state was handling COVID-19 in detention centers across the state. A petition filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association asked the state Supreme Court to intervene and compel the state to broaden its scope of how to lower inmate populations. The stance of the governor’s office was, and still is, that an executive order allowing a specific class of inmates to be released 30 days early was enough. 

The coalition that filed the petition argued that the governor’s office and the New Mexico Corrections Department were subjecting inmates to cruel and unusual punishment by sticking with the 30-day early release order instead of pushing for expanded and expedited parole or house arrest for inmates. During oral arguments in the Supreme Court case, both the governor’s lawyer and some justices expressed concern over where inmates would go after being released.

Lawyer for businesses ordered to close amid pandemic responds to state

A lawyer representing a group of businesses looking for compensation from the state after being ordered to shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, filed on Tuesday a response to a brief from the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, filed earlier this month. 

The brief, filed by Albuquerque-based attorney Blair Dunn, is just one piece of a pending New Mexico Supreme Court Case filed by state Attorney General Hector Balderas on behalf of the state. The question facing the high court is whether businesses that were forced to close under emergency public health orders are due compensation by the state for lost business. 

NM reports 1,272 more cases of COVID-19 and 23 more deaths

New Mexico state health officials announced 1,272 more cases of COVID-19 and 23 additional deaths related to the disease on Tuesday. Among the 23 newly reported deaths were 3 inmates held by the state Corrections Department. Three of the newly reported cases were also inmates held by the state. 

As of Tuesday, the state has seen 132,075 total COVID-19 cases and 2,203 total deaths. 

NM continues slight downward trend, reports 826 new cases of COVID-19 and eight more deaths

New Mexico health officials reported Monday an additional 826 cases of COVID-19 and nine additional deaths. 

Monday’s reported numbers seem to reflect a slight downward trend in cases and deaths, but also reflect a slight uptick in cases among inmates. Included in the latest reported cases were eight inmates held by the New Mexico Corrections Department.