In Albuquerque, the more things change, the more things stay the same when it comes to DWI arrests and convictions.
On January 28, 2018, The Albuquerque Journal did a Sunday, bold RED headline story “ODDS OF BEATING DWI CHARGE: ROUGHLY 50-50; DA says his office making changes to get more cases to trial.
Review of Metropolitan Court statistics for 2017 reveals that 42% of all DWI cases resolved in Metropolitan Court were dismissed either by prosecutors or judges.
Last year, 58% of DWI charges ended with a guilty verdict or negotiated plea agreements.
In 2016, the percentages favored defendants, with 55% of drunken driving cases being dismissed compared to 45% ending in plea agreement or convictions.
In 2016, the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths in Bernalillo County climbed to 53 which was the highest number since the year 2000.
NOT JUST A BERNALILLO COUNTY PROBLEM
In November, 2019, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) released the results of a DWI court monitoring program in the six counties with the highest DWI-related fatalities.
(See November 21, 2017 Albuquerque Journal, Metro & NM Section, page A6, “New report shows high DWI dismissal rates.”)
1,106 DWI cases were monitored in six counties and it was found that 36% of the DWI cases were dismissed, 35% resulted in guilty outcomes, 23% resulted in prosecutions; 4% of the charges were reduced or amended, and 1% were found not guilty.
According to the MADD survey, the top three reasons cases are dismissed are:
1. officers or witnesses failed to appear
2. the suppression or exclusion of testimony or evidence, or
3. because the defendant received a plea deal.
The truth is the three top reasons DWI cases are dismissed have been the same reasons for decades.
Problems exist regarding the mandatory scheduling of witness interviews, especially police officer interviews, failure to exchange evidence to the defense resulting in exclusion of the evidence at trial, testing of forensic evidence and witnesses not available for trial, and conflicts with police officer witnesses not available for trial due to courtroom scheduling of multiple trials involving the same officer.
CONVICTION RATES IS WHAT MATTERS
Arresting and charging someone for DWI means absolutely nothing to deter future acts unless there is a conviction and consequences for violating the law.
In 2007, DWI conviction rates in Bernalillo County ranged between 70% and 80%.
In 2016, the DWI conviction rate was 58%.
In 2017, the DWI conviction rate was 45%.
In November, 2017 Governor Martinez announced that the New Mexico Department of Transportation would be providing a grant of $300,000 to the Bernalillo County District Attorney Office help assist with DWI prosecutions.
During the Governor’s press conference announcing the grant, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez complained that his office did not always have the resources, the staff, the training or the logistical support to effectively prosecute DWI cases.
Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez acknowledges the reduced conviction rates over the years but went on to claim the DWI dismissal rate has dropped during his first year in office because his office has taken steps of “fixing many of the technical issues that lead to the dismissals”.
The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office is the largest law firm in the State of New Mexico employing upwards of 300 people with an annual budget of $18.2 million dollars.
The Bernalillo County District Attorney office when fully staffed is supposed to employ upwards of 120 full time felony and misdemeanor prosecutors, and would include felony DWI cases.
According to the state’s Sunshine Portal, Torrez’s office has 45 vacant positions out of the 299 positions the office has been budgeted for by the New Mexico legislature.
At least 14 of the vacancies in the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office are for trial attorneys, and another 14 are for legal secretaries.
There is no doubt that 14 more trial attorneys as well as 14 more legal secretaries, would go a long way in reducing the backlog of felony cases that Torrez has been complaining about the entire first year he has been in office.
Torrez is also seeking a 30% increase in budget of $5.4 million from the 2018 New Mexico legislature to be used to hire 20 more prosecutors.
Having enough prosecutors is not all that is needed when it comes to DWI.
NO ARRESTS MEANS NO PROSECUTIONS AND NO CONVICTIONS
The Bernalillo County Metropolitan court handles cases for virtually all law enforcement agencies that make arrests in Bernalillo County, including the Albuquerque Police Department (APD), the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department (BCSO) and the New Mexico State Police.
85% of the DWI cases arraigned in the Bernalillo County Metropolitan court are APD cases.
The statistics from the Bernalillo County Metro Court are alarming and reveal just how bad things are with the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) being unable to patrol our streets, get drunks off the road, make DWI arrests and prosecute DWI cases.
In 2008, there were 633 felony DWI arraignments and the number steadily declined each year to 104 in 2015.
In 2008, there were 6,538 DWI misdemeanor arraignments and the number steadily declined each year to 2,942 in 2015.
According to the 2017 city budget, the Albuquerque Police Department made more than 2,200 DWI arrests just a few years ago.
In contrast, APD made only made 775 DWI arrests in the first six months of the current budget year.
In other words, DWI arrests are down around 30%.
A decade ago, APD was making more than 5,000 DWI arrests a year.
In 2010, the Albuquerque Police Department had 14 DWI officers assigned to the Traffic Division which had a total of 34 officers enforcing all traffic laws.
Today, the Traffic Division has only 12 sworn police officers with 8 that do DWI cases.
In 2012, the Albuquerque Police Department made 4,842 DWI arrests and in 2016 the number of DWI arrests dropped by more than half to 2,347.
In 2009, there were 746 people arraigned for felony DWI and that number dropped to a mere 104 in 2015.
In 2008, there were 6,538 people arraigned for misdemeanor DWI and in 2015 that number dropped by close to 60% to 2,942.
APD STAFFING SHORTAGE
There is a direct correlation with the dramatic decline in the number of DWI arrests and arraignments and the severe decline in APD personnel.
The December 11, 2015 Albuquerque Police Department Comprehensive Staffing Assessment and Resource Study prepared by Alexander Weiss for the Department of Justice concluded that APD needs at least 1,000 sworn officers.
The Weiss report concluded that 1,000 sworn police officers were sufficient for Albuquerque provided that APD officers did not respond to certain low priority calls such as minor traffic accidents or false alarm calls.
In 2009, APD had 1,100 police officers with approximately 700 assigned to field services, patrolling our streets over three shifts.
Eight years ago, response times were at 8.5 minutes, below the national average.
In 2009, APD command staff recommended that Albuquerque needed at least 1,200 sworn officers for community-based policing and felony prosecutions.
The number of APD sworn officers has fallen from 1,100 officers to 850 over the past eight years.
In 2015, APD has 841 sworn police officers with only 440 assigned to the field services patrolling responding to 69,000 priority one 911 emergency calls a year.
Today, in 2018, APD employs 836 sworn police officers with 430 assigned to the field services, divided into three shifts, to patrol the streets and take Priority 1 calls.
Based on review of the Metropolitan Court statistics, DWI arrest and traffic are a very low priority of APD, not out of desire, but out of necessity.
With APD field officers responding to over 69,000 priority one calls a year, not to mention thousands of lower priority calls, it is surprising the statistics are not worse at Metropolitan Court.
APD cannot be proactive with DWI arrests until such time APD is fully staffed.
Without arrests, there can be no prosecutions and no convictions even if you have enough prosecutors available.