LOS LUNAS — The revolving door. Catch and release.
Whatever you call it, the frequent release of people charged with a crime with the possibility they will re-offend is an issue residents across the state have dealt with since an amendment to the new Mexico Constitution passed in 2016.
To better educate the public about what the amendment, and the accompanying rules to enforce it, means to the local judicial system, Los Lunas Police Department Lt. Lisa Valenzuela-Medina put together a panel of lawyers, judges, defense attorneys and legislators last month.
“As an officer, our role is to enforce the law. If it’s an arrestable offense, we arrest,” said Valenzuela-Medina. “What the public seems to believe, is that for certain crimes, someone is arrested, put in jail, let go and they do it again.
“So what they think is, ‘Why even bother showing up?’ as a victim or a witness, when nothing is going to happen.”
The Los Lunas Police Department sponsored a forum on “The Revolving Door of Crime and Drugs in Our Community,” early last month. About 30 residents were in attendance to ask questions about how the system works and what the rules are.
“The purpose is for the public to gain a better understanding,” Valenzuela-Medina said at the forum. “If you haven’t worked in this type of environment, we can’t expect you to understand it without explaining.”
To give the discussion a framework, Belen Magistrate John Chavez explained the role of the courts and rules they have to follow after an arrest is made.
Once someone is arrested, Chavez said, a judge has to review the criminal complaint within 48 hours, based on the rules established after the constitutional amendment passed.
“The judge has to review the case and determine probable cause,” Chavez said.
That is done by the one of the three magistrates in Valencia County — Chavez and Los Lunas Magistrates Tina Garcia and John “Buddy” Sanchez.
“We typically do that every morning by 10,” he said. “There is always an on-call judge for the weekends. At that 48-hour probable cause review, we ask was this a valid arrest without a warrant,” Chavez said.
“Probable cause is a pretty low standard, but let’s say the officer has one name in the complaint but their probable cause statement has a different name. Then they don’t have probable cause and we are required to release them. It doesn’t happen often but that might be a reason why.”
Chavez said the magistrates also look at the individual offense and the accused.
“Let’s say it was shoplifting. Maybe they stole food. People do that — take eggs, bacon, (infant) formula. We look at their criminal history. OK, yes this was a valid arrest but maybe there is little to no criminal activity.
“And, based on the totality of facts, we don’t think they are a threat of committing more crimes. There is a strong likelihood we can release them and summon them back in.”
Under the new the rules, judges have to use the least restrictive means possible if a person is held, Chavez said.
“It might be their second DWI. We look at their warrant history and they always show up to court but we’re concerned they may drink and drive again,” the judge said. “So, before they are released, they have an alcohol monitoring system on their ankle.”
A person accused of a more serious crime, such as battery, without a serious criminal history might be released with a GPS monitoring device that tracks them and alerts law enforcement if they enter a predetermined exclusion zone near the alleged victim.
“If we look at their record and see a whole lot of failure to appears — I think a record of mine was 42 — that person is getting a bond,” the judge said. “Now, we can’t set a ‘no bond’ — that’s not allowed for magistrates — but if that person is a flight risk, we can set a bond and require 10 percent. So if it’s a $1,000 bond, it gives the person the opportunity to post 10 percent only.”
Magistrates can also set a property bond on a person’s car or property, or go so far as to set a surety bond, which is issued by a bail bondsman, of which 10 percent goes directly to the bondsman.
If someone is not released after the 48-hour probable cause review, then there must be a conditions of release hearing within three business days before a magistrate.
If the bond is not dropped at that point, and the state doesn’t take the case to a preliminary hearing for a felony or to trial for a misdemeanor in 10 days, the judge said there’s a good chance the person will be released.
“All these steps are done following the state Constitution. It takes a case all the way from arrest to when someone might be released,” he said. “If it’s a felony, the state can request a court of record — a district court — have what’s called a dangerousness hearing. It’s the DA’s decision.
“You have to remember all of this is prior to conviction. We have to be cautious of any restrictions we put on someone’s liberty when they have not been found guilty.”
Barbara Romo, the chief deputy for the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s office, said they are selective in filing motions for what’s called pretrial detention.
“First, because of the constitutional amendment, really the district court is not looking at flight risk but dangerousness. The state has to bring in evidence as to why this person would be dangerous if they are released,” Romo said.
One example she gave is the release of a person accused of murder.
“It seems counter intuitive to release that person, but they may only be dangerous to the person they killed,” she said.
There are strict deadlines for having a pretrial detention hearing, Romo said, noting if someone was in custody, they have to do it within three days.
“When the criminal complaint is filed in magistrate court, it might take a day or two before it hits our office, so we rely on law enforcement to let us know if they have a case coming up,” she said. “They are on the ground, know who is dangerous.”
Romo said it’s hard for crime victims, witness and law enforcement to understand why someone is released after committing a crime.
“Due to the constitutional amendment, it’s kind of the default position,” she said. “The state has to come forward and show why this person is dangerous. We’ve been successful in most of our motions for pretrial detention but we are selective.”
The chief deputy said she understands people often don’t like to get involved in criminal matters, but asked victims and witnesses to please continue to cooperate.
“We are truly concerned about keeping our community safe. Defense attorneys are of the same mind. We each have a role. They are part of what makes the judicial process work,” Romo said. “Say your loved one is accused of a crime they didn’t commit. Wouldn’t you want a qualified defense attorney defending their rights? We’re all part of same process and that makes us safer.”
(More coverage on “The Revolving Door” will be published in the Nov. 14 edition of the News-Bulletin.)
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.