Bernalillo County DA to halt in-person hearings to protect attorneys from COVID-19

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.

NM Supreme Court orders further COVID-19 restrictions for state courts

The New Mexico Supreme Court announced Tuesday further restrictions for court proceedings across the state. 

The court’s updated order, which will go into effect immediately, also suspended all trials that have not already started until April 30. In a statement, New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said the order will help preserve the integrity of the justice system while also providing safety from COVID-19, a disease from the coronavirus. “The precautionary measures imposed by the Judiciary today will provide additional safeguards for all New Mexicans while allowing necessary court functions to continue,” Nakamura said. But she said it is also imperative the courts remain open. “Especially during a public health emergency, courts must not close because they deliver vital services required in our justice system to ensure community safety,” Nakamura said.

Raul Torrez

District attorney: ‘Budgetary technicality’ to blame for unspent funds

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.

Letters could foreshadow future debates over crime prevention, budgets

The months leading up to legislative sessions are often marked by state agencies presenting progress reports to lawmakers. Crime in the Albuquerque area has been a frequent subject to come up when talking about spending. But those conversations are usually devoted to the road ahead and not to picking apart past budgets. 

But in a letter sent last month, the state’s speaker of the House and a top financial leader in the House asked the Bernalillo County district attorney for an informal audit of millions of dollars appropriated to his office two years ago. In return, the district attorney offered a private meeting with a legislative panel to go over how money is being spent. The written exchanges hint at further budget scrutiny from lawmakers, and also a potential rift between some House and Senate Democrats. 

Progress report

On October 17, New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf and House Appropriations Chair and Legislative Finance Co-chair Patricia Lundstrom, both Democrats, co-authored a letter to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez about an upcoming interim meeting with the Legislative Finance Committee.

BernCo DA: New Mexico AG should review questionable police shootings

Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez says he’s done waiting for a so-called “DA panel” to determine whether the Albuquerque police officer who killed 19-year-old Mary Hawkes in 2014 should be prosecuted. Instead, the first-term, Democratic DA in New Mexico’s most populous district wants the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer to decide. He has referred the case to state Attorney General Hector Balderas, according to a letter he sent to the Hawkes family’s legal team, which was obtained by New Mexico In Depth and the Santa Fe Reporter on Friday. 

And according to the letter, the Hawkes case is just the first. Going forward, he intends to refer all police shooting cases to the AG for a second look if his special prosecutors return recommendations that no charges be filed against the shooting officer. Not so fast, says Matt Baca, Balderas’ spokesman and general counsel.

After failed indictments on sexual assault charges, father tries to rebuild family, career

In the late afternoon of August 30, 2017, Jessica Lowther was on the phone with her husband, Adam. Recently back from a routine business trip, Adam called to say he was headed home from work and would take their two young children to their taekwondo lessons. During that call, Jessica answered a knock on her front door. A handful of Bernalillo County Sheriff’s officers and at least one investigator from the Children Youth and Families Department stood at her door. A female officer said they needed to do a welfare check on the two Lowther children.

Gun control debate restarts in NM Legislature

Legislators are pressing ahead with a slate of gun control bills that would require background checks for virtually all firearm sales and add to the categories of offenders who would be prohibited from possessing a gun at all. Proponents argue these bills will close loopholes and help keep guns out of the hands of those who have committed violent crimes or are in crisis. But critics argue the laws will prove unenforceable, ineffective and will undermine the right to bear arms.

The measures come with a sense of urgency after mass shootings around the country and in New Mexico have spurred calls for tighter limits on obtaining firearms.

But even with Democrats holding a 46-24 majority in the House, any major gun control measures will face opposition as well as wary moderates. In turn, Democrats are focusing on a few sets of policies they argue are effective enough to win support for finally passing a bill after years of watching legislation be watered down or blocked altogether. Instead of calling for bans on so-called bump stocks or high-capacity magazines, lawmakers so far are focusing on expanding background checks and tightening limits on the rights of domestic violence offenders to possess guns.

Emails show prosecutors misled public about plea deal with former Martinez cabinet secretary

Assistant District Attorney Joshua Boone wanted to reassure his boss. A political blogger was raising questions in early February about why the DA’s office had agreed to plead Ryan Flynn’s aggravated DWI charge, leveled after a May 20, 2017 traffic stop, down to careless driving. Flynn, one of the state’s most influential powerbrokers, was Gov. Susana Martinez’ former Environment Department secretary, and now heads up the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. This story originally appeared in the Santa Fe Reporter and New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission. In a Feb.

How one influential NM powerbroker might have escaped a drunken driving charge

Just after midnight on May 20, Albuquerque Police Officer Joshua Montaño saw a luxury sedan veer into a turn bay blocked off by bright orange traffic barrels before it pulled back over a solid divider line onto an Interstate 25 frontage road. Montaño flipped on his emergency police lights and the 2004 Infiniti stopped in the parking lot of the Marriott Pyramid, a high-end hotel in Northeast Albuquerque. A veteran DWI cop who has conducted hundreds of drunken driving investigations, Montaño approached the vehicle on foot. He was armed with a slew of additional information gleaned from a police service aide and a concerned citizen: The Infiniti’s driver had swerved numerous times traveling northbound from downtown Albuquerque, he’d delayed proceeding through a green light by 10 seconds, he’d driven 10 mph under the posted speed limit, and he’d done it all with his headlights turned off. In the driver’s seat of the car was Ryan Flynn, 39, Gov. Susana Martinez’ former cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department, who left that job in 2016 to become executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

Supporters rally for LGBTQ-friendly club

One week after a Nob Hill nightclub was subjected to homophobic attacks, a group of supporters rallied Sunday morning to support Albuquerque Social Club. Anthony Montaño, who manages the LGBTQ-friendly club, told NM Political Report the harassment began Saturday, April 1, when the club received four threatening phone calls. The next day, Montaño said the harassment continued and the club’s door staffer “felt threatened enough to call the police.”

That evening, two club staffers saw two cars pull up into the parking lot as they were leaving from work. Each car brandished guns, Montaño said, and fired a total of three shots into the air. The staffers ran inside and called the police.