Across the state, prosecutors and law enforcement have been under severe strain to meet the increased demand for public safety. Some law enforcement agencies are so shorthanded that they have stopped responding in person to property crimes because of a lack of officers. Prosecutors say that some victims and witnesses, particularly during the height of COVID-19, have been reluctant to appear for the required pretrial interviews and hearings, sometimes resulting in criminal cases being dismissed.
On March 24, the New Mexico Supreme Court announced through the Administrative Office of the Courts procedures to streamline and expedite criminal cases and traffic cases in state courts to ease hardships in the justice system from the COVID-19 pandemic. The New Mexico Court developed the initiatives with input from judges and justice partners, including prosecutors and public defenders.
The specific changes announced are as follow:
The State will no longer be required to schedule pretrial interviews with law enforcement in misdemeanor cases in Santa Fe County Magistrate Court and the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court under a pilot initiative. Defense lawyers will continue to have information supplied by law enforcement in police reports and recordings such as lapel videos, as well criminal complaints, which bring charges against a person and outline the reasons for an arrest. Click here to view the Supreme Court order.
District courts can hold settlement conferences in criminal cases and assign a judge, other than the judge presiding in the case , to facilitate possible plea discussions and ensure that the parties exchange evidence in a timely manner. Prosecutors are not required to make a plea offer and a defendant is not required to accept one. If the state does not intend to offer a plea and notifies the court, a settlement conference will not be held. An order issued by the Supreme Court allows for settlement conferences by suspending a prohibition on judicial participation in plea discussions. The Second Judicial District Court has been using settlement conferences. The Supreme Court is expanding the initiative statewide to potentially speed up the resolution of cases, and focus resources on more complex criminal proceedings and those in which defendants are jailed pretrial.
Requiring a status conference for defendants, who are not in jail, early in criminal proceedings. The conferences can help resolve cases and allow witnesses, including law enforcement and crime victims, to avoid appearing at a later hearing. The status conference will be conducted before a defendant’s preliminary hearing, which determines whether there is probable cause for the case to proceed to trial in district court. The new procedure will be piloted in the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court and the Santa Fe County Magistrate Court. At the status conference a defendant can make a plea, enter a pre-prosecution diversion program and waive a preliminary hearing. Click here to view the Supreme Court order.
Traffic violation cases in magistrate courts statewide and the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court generally will be conducted remotely. This allows officers, the defendant and witnesses to avoid traveling to a courthouse for in-person trials before a judge and can free up time for officers for other law enforcement duties. There previously was a presumption that traffic cases would be heard in-person.
Chief Justice Michael Vigil had this to say in a statement about the new procedures:
“The Supreme Court approved these procedural measures to help our justice partners and courts make the best use of their time and limited resources. … All New Mexicans benefit from an effective and efficient justice system that resolves criminal cases in a timely manner.”
New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Briana Zamora has this to say about the changes:
“These changes in the judicial process will help efficiently use the resources of police, prosecutors, defense counsel and courts to move cases forward toward a resolution while honoring constitutional rights and protections.”
Supreme Court Justice David Thomson said this about the changes:
“When possible we want to prevent law enforcement officers, crime victims and witnesses from unnecessarily making multiple appearances in court proceedings. We are working with our justice system partners to update procedures and processes that strained their resources during the pandemic.”
The New Mexico Supreme Court’s March 24, 2022 press release in a pdf formate entitled “Supreme Court streamlines procedures to expedite criminal cases in state courts” can be found here:
The most controversial change is the pilot program eliminating the requirement that prosecutors make law enforcement available for pretrial interviews in misdemeanor cases.
PROSECUTION AND LAW ENFORCEMENT REACT
In a March 4 letter to the New Mexico Supreme Court, Bernalillo County Dsitrict attorney Raul Torrez wrote the Court:
“… Pretrial interviews require police officers to appear for court-related activities in greater numbers and for more time than is necessary to adjudicate cases in a fair and just manner. These police officers are too frequently taken off the streets and away from their duties.”
Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez had this to say about the Supreme Court changes:
“The Supreme Court’s changes are modest but they are a welcome start in building a more just and equitable system. … [ Eliminating pretrial interviews in misdemeanor cases] will free up many hours [for prosecutors and will] “relieve some of the burdens imposed on law enforcement officers in misdemeanor cases.”
Torrez said APD’s staffing shortage will still be impacted by the officers having to participate in pretrial interviews in felony cases, while also appearing for testimony at preliminary hearings and trial.
APD Chief Harold Medina had this to say:
“Overall, this is a welcome change that will help move cases through the system and allow officers to do their jobs in the field.” Medina also renewed his call on for pretrial detention criteria to be adjusted to keep more violent offenders jailed pending trial.”
DEFENSE BAR REACTS
Chief Public Defender Ben Baur in reaction to the Supreme Court changes has this to say:
“Probably, initially, this will reduce some burden upon law enforcement and district attorneys but if there are more trials, not necessarily. It is definitely adding to the burden of the defense because we will have to find other ways to seek these interviews [like seeking subpoenas to get a pretrial interview] We’re going to have to see how this is interpreted.”
“We are interested in efficiency because we are so under-resourced we want to be able to move things, but it can’t be at the expense of our clients. … Clearly the court with the best of intentions is trying to find efficiencies in the system, but I believe that this may actually lead to more trials because if we can’t interview the officers without a trial, there are cases where we may end up going to trial simply because we need to ask them those questions.”
The link to quoted news source material is here:
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
After a full two years of the pandemic, and a scaling back of court trials and in person hearings, it is difficult to understand why the New Mexico Supreme court is acting now. At least it’s a start and the new procedures have real promise. Streamlining practices to make the best use of everyone’s time and resources while ensuring the rights of defendants must be the ultimate goal. The Supreme Courts new process should be carefully monitored over the next 6 months and be evaluated to ensure they’re working as intended.