On September 5 Second Judicial District Attorney Sam Bregman, accompanied by APD Chief Harold Medina, Bernalillo County Sherriff John Allen, NM Representative Marian Mathews and members of the business community, held a press conference to announced that the Bernalillo County District Attorney Office is prosecuting all misdemeanor shoplifting cases.
Bregman said his office has hired 40 attorneys since he took office in January. The office is fully staffed, and a team of 14 prosecutors will add hundreds of cases to their workload. The 14 attorneys already assigned to the District Attorney Metro Court Division and who prosecute domestic violence and DWI cases, which are “cases of record” requiring a court reporter, will have the shoplifting cases added to their caseloads. Bregman said his office would not do this if he didn’t feel his attorneys couldn’t handle the addition to their case loads.
The ultimate goal of the plan is to free up more law enforcement officers with attorneys prosecuting cases. Normally, shoplifting cases is a misdemeanor and such cases are referred to as “police officer prosecutions”. Albuquerque Police and Bernalillo County deputies have been prosecuting misdemeanor shoplifting cases on their own without a prosecutor presenting the evidence and perhaps examining witnesses. According to a news release from Bregman’s office, 40 to 70 misdemeanor shoplifting cases are going go through Metropolitan Court every month.
Last year, the county had 662 misdemeanor shoplifting case filed in Metropolitan Court, all of which were officer-prosecuted. The problem is the conviction rate is 15%. Bregman did not blame the law enforcement officers for the low conviction rate in that most of them are trying to prosecute crimes they didn’t witness. Bregman did say the conviction rate reflected the need for change in how the prosecutions were handled. Bregman said this:
“15% is all that was convicted of misdemeanor metro cases in Bernalillo County. … It’s not working. It’s not even close to working. That is unacceptable at every level. I’m not placing blame on anyone. But enough is enough. … We want cops to be cops and by making them be prosecutors it takes cops off the streets … People should be able to go to the store without being afraid. Business owners are also fed up. … We think these new changes will hold repeat shoplifters accountable. … The days of shoplifting without consequences are over in Bernalillo County. … Residents of Bernalillo County have made it clear, they have had enough.”
DA Bregman said he knows shoplifting is often a means to feed drug addiction, so his office will also offer diversion programs and ways for people to get out of the criminal justice system. However, he says if people continue to shoplift, even small items, prosecutors will seek jail time.
AGGREGATING RETAIL CRIME FOR PROSECUTION
It was during the 2023 New Mexico legislative session that House Bill 234 was passed. The legislation creates a new category of “organized retail crime” and stiffens penalties for organized theft of store merchandise. Retailers have highlighted losses from coordinated pilfering.
The new law gives District Attorneys the ability to aggregate the total retail market value of merchandise shoplifted by an individual who does it more than once during a 90-day period. The result is that a misdemeanor charge can turn into a fourth-degree felony or greater, depending on the value of the merchandise stolen.
House Bill 234 went into effect in July 1. DA Bregman said his office has charged 23 cases as felonies and will continue to utilize the new law to actively prosecute future cases. In those 23 cases, Bregman said his office filed for pretrial detention for 5 individuals and had 4 granted.
NM Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, one of the HB 234 sponsors who attended the September 5 press conference with Bregman, said the new law gives law enforcement a solid statute in place to pursue retail crime. She also gave praise to the District Attorney’s Office for using the new law and dedicating resources to prosecution efforts. Matthews said this:
“I want to give the DA a shoutout for putting the resources into Metro Court in order to bring these cases and increase the number of convictions”.
Links to quoted news sources are here:
DA BREGMAN IN HIS OWN WORDS
On September 24, the Albuquerque Journal published the below guest column by District Attorney Sam Bregman:
HEADLINE: We’ve made a major change prosecuting shoplifting
“The time when there are no consequences for shoplifting in Bernalillo County is coming to an end. Effective Sept. 1 of this year, the District Attorney’s Office will be entering its appearance in every shoplifting case, including all misdemeanors filed in Metropolitan Court.
A little history is necessary to understand why this is a major change for our community. For over the past two decades, shoplifting cases that were misdemeanors were known as officer prosecuted cases. Meaning, that the arresting officer was required to prosecute these cases in Metropolitan Court. There were several problems with this: (1) Officers are not prosecutors; and (2) Officers were in the court on cases they were not even witnesses to, as opposed to being on the streets fighting crime. Last year, this resulted in a misdemeanor shoplifting conviction rate of 15%. This is simply unacceptable at every level.
So effective as of Sept. 1, I have directed prosecutors from my office to prosecute misdemeanor shoplifting cases in Bernalillo County. A total of 14 prosecutors will be handling misdemeanor shoplifting cases together with misdemeanor DWIs and domestic violence cases. This office, in just the first 19 days of this new policy, is prosecuting 56 shoplifting misdemeanor cases.
Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a new law allowing for the aggregation of misdemeanor cases to make them felonies. That law went into effect this summer and this office has utilized this law to enhance 32 cases into felonies and is prosecuting those cases.
If the Legislature continues to give law enforcement the tools, we will do the job. I want the people of Bernalillo County to know the Mission Statement of the District Attorney’s Office: “To be relentless in holding people accountable under the rule of law — to do Justice. We do this with the unwavering commitment that our top priority will be the safety of the community in Bernalillo County.”
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
DA Bregman is commended on his decision have his office prosecute shoplifting cases. This is what is called getting back to the basics. It is likely his office will have a much higher success rate when it comes to convictions than his predecessor. No District Attorney can ever guarantee a 100% conviction rate on case loads, but it is always the ultimate goal of any District Attorney worth their salt. At one time, the District Attorney’s office was able to boast of conviction rates in both felony and misdemeanor cases exceeding 90% and as much as 98% depending on the type of cases.
District Attorney Sam Bregman was appointed District Attorney on January 4 by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to fill the remaining 2 years of the term of former District Attorney Raúl Torrez who was elected New Mexico Attorney General. In 2015, the District Court provided a study of the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office and performance measures. The statistics revealed the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office under Raúl Torrez had a 66% combined dismissal, acquittal and mistrial rate with cases charge by grand juries, which would be felonies only. The data presented showed in part how overcharging and a failure to screen cases by the District Attorney’s Office was contributing to the high mistrial and acquittal rates. The performance measures have gotten much better now that Torrez has left the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office.
Another thing DA Bregman needs to be recognized for is his ability to work with other law enforcement agencies, including APD and BCSO and especially the courts. Gone is the fingerpainting to the court’s by the DA. Bregman has made it clear from the start that he may disagree with court rulings, but he would not be openly hostile towards the courts nor would he say our criminal justice system is broken. This is a sign of a mature trial attorney that knows full well he must work with, and more importantly, respect the courts.
By all accounts, District Attorney Sam Bregman has done a commendable job thus far as District Attorney and has begun to turn things around when it comes to prosecuting cases by the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office. In the 9 months he has been District Attorney, Sam Bregman has implemented reforms and procedures that have led to significant improvements within the office including:
Hiring of 40 new attorneys, more than double the number of attorneys hired in all of 2022.
Nearly 60% of pre-trial detention motions are being granted, the highest percentage since 2017
The office now has criminal conviction rate of 66.7%, nearly 10% higher than in 2022.
Ultimately, only time will tell if DA Bregman will be successful and for that matter get elected in 2024 for a full 4 year term. If Bregman’s last 9 months performance are any measure, his office will be successful by simply getting back to the basics of criminal prosecution designed to make a real difference and he will be elected to a full 4 year term.