Starting Monday there will be significantly fewer prosecutors in Bernalillo County’s district court. Raul Torrez, the 2nd Judicial District Attorney, issued a letter to the state Supreme Court Thursday notifying justices that Torrez’s staff will not appear in person to any proceedings that can be done over video conferencing.
“As of Monday, March 23, 2020, my attorneys and staff will not appear in person for any hearings which can be constitutionally conducted by video conference technology,” Torrez wrote.
His announcement came days after the state Supreme Court added additional restrictions for court proceedings amid a growing number of positive COVID-19 tests in the state.
In his letter, Torrez said his office took part in a test video conference with public defenders and a state district court judge. He argued that the test was proof that current technology will allow courts to preserve constitutional rights and public safety.
“Unfortunately, despite viable technological alternatives, in-person hearings continue to be set for routine matters that do not legally require the physical presence of any of the parties involved,” Torrez wrote. “Courtrooms continue to gather too many people into confined spaces, unnecessarily placing my employees, their families, defendants, court personnel, and the entire community at risk.”
Torrez’s letter echoed concerns he and others in the justice system sent to the Supreme Court last week. Both the state’s District Attorney’s Association and the Law Offices of the Public Defender issued their own letters to the Supreme Court.
Next January marks the beginning of the New Mexico’s 30-day legislative session, which will largely focus on budget issues, including how much money state departments, local governments and courts will get. Given Albuquerque’s high crime rate, the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s office and its funding will likely be under scrutiny by legislators. A preview of that scrutiny came in the form of a letter in October from the head of the House committee in charge of the budget and the Speaker of the House, to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez.
The October letter asked Torrez to detail how he spent the more-than-$6-million in appropriations his office received almost two years ago. In a Legislative Finance hearing earlier this week, Torrez told lawmakers a misunderstanding in how to word the request for money resulted in about $1.7 million of a $2 million special appropriation inaccessible to his office. In an almost 50-page report, Torrez told the LFC that it wasn’t until August of this year that his office realized that a “budgetary technicality” regarding recurring funds left most of the special appropriation effectively unusable.
“We reached out to our analyst and we were specifically told that the language was not necessary,” Torrez told the panel.
During the 2018 legislative session, Torrez asked the Legislature to appropriate $4.1 million with an additional $2.5 million to help fund a pilot program called the Crime Strategies Unit (CSU) for better tracking and analysis.
If former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Sol Watchler was right about grand juries and ham sandwiches, the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court might see more cold cuts.
House Bill 19, sponsored by Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, would allow the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court to convene grand juries, which are currently only held in state and federal district courts. The proposal, Hochman-Vigil said, is “an administrative clean-up measure.”
The Albuquerque lawyer added that some cases involving grand juries currently go back and forth between Metro and state District Courts and her bill would allow for more autonomy, particularly in Metro Court. “This allows for Metro Court to have better control over their own caseload and allows them flexibility to run these cases in the best, most efficient, manner they see possible,” Hochman-Vigil said. Felony cases in Bernalillo County sometimes start in Metro Court, but go to District Court if prosecutors decide to use a grand jury.
A trial involving the University of New Mexico and its medical facility began Monday with jury selection. But after a decision from a district judge and a high ranking court official, no one from the public, including media, was allowed to witness the process of how or why each side selected or rejected jurors. The case goes back to 2011 when Dr. Cynthia Herald filed a lawsuit against UNM Hospital and some of its administrators for firing Herald after she said a male doctor raped her. Herald and the male doctor were both residents at UNM at the time, but Herald was dismissed from the program shortly after she reported the rape to her superiors. UNMH has maintained from the beginning they kicked Herald out of the residency program for subsequent drug use while on the job as an anesthesiologist.
Three advocacy organizations are teaming up to intervene in and halt a lawsuit filed by business groups that want to reverse Albuquerque’s minimum wage and keep a paid sick leave ordinance off the ballot in October. The Center on Law and Poverty, which is acting as counsel, filed a motion to intervene and a motion to dismiss the lawsuit Thursday in Albuquerque district court. The Center on Law and Poverty, is representing a group of city voters who are members of Organizing in the Land of Enchantment (OLE) and El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos. The New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry, NAIOP and the New Mexico Restaurant Association filed the lawsuit against the city earlier this month. The lawsuit contends that both city initiatives amount to illegal “logrolling,” which it refers to as “the presentation of double or multiple propositions to the voters with no chance to vote on the separate questions.” Attorney Pat Rogers, who is representing the business groups in the lawsuit, cites the fact that the proposed sick leave ordinance has 14 sections to it as an example.
Protesters, disappointed with a mistrial in the case of two Albuquerque police officers, blocked traffic, chanted and had a few tense moments with police Wednesday night in downtown Albuquerque. The protesters, under 100 at the peak and almost a quarter that by the end of the protest hours later, began at the 2nd Judicial District courthouse, before marching to the police station. After returning to the courthouse, protesters briefly clashed with police wearing tactical gear. Reporters saw pushing and shoving between the two groups. Police eventually got protesters to retreat to the sidewalk next to the courthouse without any arrests.
Among questions following the gruesome rape and murder last week of an Albuquerque girl that sent shockwaves across New Mexico is how one of the alleged perpetrators was present to commit the violence in the first place. Fabian Gonzales, one of three being charged in the murder of 10-year-old Victoria Martens, was supposed to be on supervised probation for a separate crime for a year-and-a-half before the night of Martens’ death. In Febraury 2015, a judge sentenced Gonzales, 31, to two years of probation after he pleaded guilty to battery and abandonment of a child. This two-year probation sentence, however, was never enforced. The sentence prohibited Gonzales from using illegal drugs and subjected him to random drug testing.
Mayor Richard Berry’s Albuquerque Rapid Transit project ran into a legal pothole when a state court judge ordered the City Council to – catch this – do its job and give ART opponents a hearing on a procedural, but also substantive, matter regarding the project. In what is a relatively rare legal procedure, Bernalillo County District Judge Victor Lopez issued a Writ of Mandamus to the Council ordering it to obey a city law that requires it to give ART opponents a hearing on the refusal of the city’s Landmarks and Urban Conservation Commission to explain why it has refused to explain its decision – or non-decision – in favor or ART. That body has has twice deferred making a decision on a challenge to ART’s design. Under city law, the Landmarks Commission is required to issue findings of fact, or explain why it has deferred a matter. And if the Commission declines to issue those findings of fact, the Council is required to hold a public hearing on the matter.
In what looks like a final decision, attorneys for a former state senator and prosecutors agreed on a judge to preside over the case. Brett Loveless will preside over the high profile case of Phil Griego, who is facing corruption charges related to a real estate deal that ended with his resignation from the state SEnate. The last time we checked in with the case, the Democrat from San Jose pleaded not guilty. This came in front of the eighth judge assigned to the case. Before District Court Judge Sarah Singleton took the case, the previous seven recused themselves.
Quickly after the Second Judicial District Court announced restrictions to journalists covering cases, journalists denounced and mocked the restrictions. The court admitted it was “overbroad” and said that the restrictions were being rewritten. A memo to members of the press titled “Media Access to the Courthouse” laid out the new restrictions and is dated June 2, though journalists received it on Wednesday morning, June 3. The memo acknowledges that “cameras and recording devices are allowed in the courtroom” as long as they abide by a rule set forth by the New Mexico Supreme Court. More from the memo, with quotes from the Supreme Court:
In addition, the media coverage must not “detract from the dignity of the court proceedings or otherwise interfere with the achievement of a fair and impartial hearing…”