At noon on July 4, as America celebrated its freedom, armed officers of the state escorted Eric Raymond Buckley into the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility.
The smile he wore for his mug shot is best described as nonplussed. He wasn’t the only one who saw the absurdity of his situation: The arresting officer apologized, Buckley recalls, as she ordered him into her patrol car.
The easygoing 36-year-old acupuncturist wasn’t in jail because he’d shot, stabbed or driven drunk. He hadn’t run a red light or raised his voice. He hadn’t even gotten caught sneaking a handful of granola from the bins at Whole Foods.
Three events conspired to land Buckley in jail:
More than a year ago, his dog ZZ, a 10-year-old black Belgian sheepdog mix who is well-behaved but afraid of thunder, ran away in a storm. “She got picked up by the fuzz, and I went and bailed her out,” Buckley recalls.
On the night of July 3, a Hollywood director ran over Buckley’s motorcycle, which had been parked on the street outside his house.
The next morning, Buckley called the police to file a report about his totaled motorcycle.
Two Santa Fe Police Department officers showed up at Buckley’s house, in a cul-de-sac near Alto Street. Officer Andrea Gutierrez took a report on Buckley’s busted motorcycle. Fortunately, the driver, Basil Grillo—production manager for the Harrison Ford film now shooting in town,
—had left a note with his phone number.
The accident report squared away, Officer Gutierrez arrested Buckley. As a matter of procedure, the officers had checked his name with the dispatcher, who informed them that Buckley had a bench warrant.
The year-old warrant had been issued after Buckley failed to appear in court to answer an animal control citation, the consequence of ZZ’s brief escape.
What Buckley didn’t remember at the time of his arrest—and the officers had no way of knowing—was that he had actually paid the animal control ticket.
Buckley’s citation is dated June 2, 2009. To get his dog back, he had signed a promise to pay the $125 fee within 30 days.
Records show Buckley missed that deadline, paying the fee in person at the Santa Fe Animal Services Division on Aug. 7, a full 19 days before he was supposed to appear in court. On Aug. 23, Municipal Court Judge Ann Yalman signed a bench warrant for Buckley, although his fee had been paid three weeks earlier, and Buckley claims he never received a summons.
Even if Buckley could have shown the officers proof of payment, it wouldn’t have mattered: He was a wanted man.
(Santa Fe Police Chief Aric Wheeler and a department spokesman did not return SFR’s calls regarding this story.)
Jail records show Buckley spent three hours in detention that Independence Day. He was released after paying a $225 bond.
Ten days after his arrest, and after five hours spent waiting for his name to be called at Municipal Court, a fill-in judge whom Buckley describes as “as old as the hills” dismissed the case.
His ordeal cost Santa Fe taxpayers an estimated $50 in booking costs, plus the time wasted by clerks, guards, police officers and judges.
“Because of budget constraints, you’d think they’d want to not arrest people they don’t have to, and focus their attention on things that should be dealt with,” Buckley says. “It doesn’t surprise me, in that this is New Mexico, and people don’t seem to really care about having things done right.”
Unfortunately, for anyone who might come into contact with the law, Buckley’s case was an extreme example of a systemic problem.
“People are getting arrested when they’ve paid their tickets. It happens a lot,” Shari Weinstein, a former chief deputy 1st Judicial District attorney, now a legal adviser for the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, tells SFR. “We recognize it’s a problem, and we need to fix it. Big time.”
The problem is well-known to lawyers, clerks, judges and police.
“Not everybody in jail is guilty. We do arrest people who are innocent,” Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano says. “I’ve got 17 years in law enforcement, and I know—I can give you a name—that I’ve arrested somebody on a bench warrant who has probably paid the ticket.”
Screwups are screwups, even when they result from poor planning, as appears to be the case in New Mexico, with its antiquated criminal procedures and uniquely onerous traffic citation form. But SFR’s reporting points to a much deeper problem with the local administration of justice: Even when the system works as designed, the outcomes are of dubious benefit—especially stacked against the time and money spent in the often futile pursuit of small fines. A merciless flood of bench warrants, most of which began with traffic or other non-criminal citations, makes fugitives of thousands of people who might simply have made a mistake.
In short, the same justice system that is plagued by errors of its own creation leaves no room for error by small-time, non-criminal defendants—who, when they do show up to court, almost never bring a lawyer.
Judges say they have little choice but to issue so many bench warrants: that without the threat of jail, some people would never pay fines or show up to court. But Buckley’s experience with the system has only lowered his opinion of it.
“I called them to assist me in my time of need, and they threw me in jail over something I had dealt with,” he says. “It’s like a big bureaucratic cog that has no regard for the humans who it is supposed to help.”
Welcome to law and order, Santa Fe style.
Kafkaesque tales of sadistic bureaucracy abound. The Santa Fe New Mexican frequently makes hay over the Santa Fe County Magistrate Court’s habit of losing papers, misfiling cases and jailing innocents.
Anecdotes are well and good, but SFR wanted hard numbers. So we scoured nearly 6,000 jail records, from the first inmate booked in the wee hours of New Year’s Day through the morning of Aug. 4.
The records reveal, to an extent, into which areas police, prosecutors and judges put their energies. They also underscore trends familiar to those within the judicial system and startling to those outside it.
Three other inmates this year were, like Buckley, thrown in jail over unpaid animal control citations. SFR was unable to reach them to see if they, too, had actually paid their tickets—more on that inaccessibility problem later.
But most striking is how both court dockets and jail cells are overwhelmed with small-time scofflaws.
The US Marshals office, which hunts fugitives, estimates there are more than 100,000 active bench and arrest warrants in New Mexico. Cynthia Pacheco, statewide warrant enforcement manager for the Administrative Office of the Courts, says there are approximately 6,000 active warrants in Santa Fe County—one for every 25 residents.
Approximately 1,800 of those local warrants were issued for failure to appear in court; another 1,450 were issued for failure to pay fines.
Some of those people might hope to clear their names by paying their tickets—although, as Buckley’s case shows, paying isn’t always enough.
Many others will never be served with their bench warrants, unless they happen to get stopped by a police officer—or, as in Buckley’s case, call the police for help.
Digging down further into the numbers, it’s clear that the backlog of warrants issued over minor infractions consumes time and money that could be spent handling more serious crimes.
As it is, Santa Fe County jail processes as many people brought in over old traffic violations as it does new drunk driving cases (637 and 626 this year, respectively).
A full 9 percent of the county jail bookings so far this year were people who had been found in contempt of court, failed to appear or failed to pay fines stemming from a traffic violation. That’s 501 people in all, an average of one booking every 10 hours.
A surprisingly small fraction of those 501 scofflaws were booked with secondary offenses, beyond traffic citations. Seventeen had violated probation. Only four were charged with weapons violations.
For this story, SFR focused on a subset of 66 people jailed this year for the sole reason that they failed to pay traffic fines to Santa Fe Magistrate Court, the source of most of the bench warrants. (Santa Fe Municipal Court, a separate entity, handles city parking cases, some traffic cases, animal control and other misdemeanors cited by city police.)
The average fine for those 66 people is $260. Eight of them spent more than 12 hours in jail. Another four spent nearly two days behind bars, waiting to see a judge.
One young woman wound up spending eight days in jail. Her original crime? Littering.
It’s hard to know how many people may be jailed in error. Most errors begin with outdated procedures in law enforcement agencies and poorly considered state mandates—problems that court officials say they’re working to fix.
Given that the procedural sources of many errors are known, the reluctance of the authorities to admit mistakes confounds those caught in the system.
“I know of instances, when I was practicing here, when warrants were improvidently issued. The courts are very reluctant to withdraw them. They don’t. They won’t, even if it was improvidently entered,” New Mexico’s chief public defender, Hugh Dangler, says.
Most infuriating, Dangler recalls, are cases in which the courts neglect to put jailed defendants’ names on the daily court docket—then call for their heads when the defendants fail to show up in court because they’re sitting behind bars.
The court dockets are clogged, Dangler says, with small-time offenders who’ve been “railroaded” by a dysfunctional bureaucracy that refuses to account for routine miscommunication.
“It undermines the authority of the judicial system,” Dangler says. “If you are vindictive in a small way toward people, why would people have trust in the judicial system?”
The actual level of disorganization, Dangler says, is so great that it strains comprehension. The truly surprising thing, he says, is that Santa Fe’s justice system functions as well as it does.
Such sentiments might be predictable, coming from a defense attorney. Nevertheless, it’s true that judges don’t have much sympathy for people who complain about getting thrown in jail after missing a court date.
“The reason we [issue warrants] for parking and animal control [citations] is that nobody would pay any attention to us if we didn’t,” Yalman says. “It’s a wake-up call is what it is. And to their friends: Wouldn’t you pay more attention once you heard that story?”
Perhaps. But some stories seem pointless.
Late last month, 20-year-old Erica Valdez of Española spent eight days in the Santa Fe County jail over a ticket for “throwing [a] soda can out [the] rear window” of her Nissan Altima.
SFR failed to reach Valdez. The courts couldn’t reach her either. Whatever the reason, her inaccessibility grew a $50 fine into a $411 fine, which she paid off through jail time served at the equivalent of minimum wage.
Chief Magistrate Court Judge David Segura stresses that defendants are sent multiple warnings before a warrant gets issued. Usually, those warnings are sent to the address on the original citation, which is most often the address printed on the defendant’s driver’s license—which, often as not these days, is several moves out-of-date.
“There is a law saying you have to keep it up-to-date. I’m not sure anyone follows it,” the AOC’s Weinstein says. (Weinstein herself once nearly got a ticket for having failed to update her address with the state Motor Vehicles Division.)
Anecdotally, Judge Yalman says it seems like 90 percent of the Municipal Court’s outgoing mail comes back undelivered—an exaggeration, admittedly, but not by much. The AOC’s success rate for jury summons has swung wildly from quarter to quarter, between 28 and 87 percent in a recent fiscal year. Presumably, defendants are harder to get a hold of than prospective jurors who, although inconvenienced, at least get paid for showing up to court.
The New Mexico Supreme Court instructs judges to issue warrants when defendants fail to appear or to pay fines, but leaves it up to lower courts whether and how to warn defendants about an impending bench warrant.
According to a New Mexico Judicial Education Center handbook for municipal and magistrate court judges, bench warrants should be issued for past-due fines only after the court has made “reasonable efforts to collect.”
So what constitutes a “reasonable” effort? Opinions differ. Anyone who’s been on a credit card company’s bad side knows corporate America doesn’t merely mail a few letters when it wants to collect $50.
But banks and private collections agencies have one powerful tool New Mexico’s courts lack: Computers. The police and court systems here are drowning in paper.
Santa Fe city police representatives, again, failed to return SFR’s calls. For his part, County Sheriff Solano says only five of approximately 90 deputies have the technology to transmit tickets electronically to the courts; the other 85 write them by hand and file them with the office’s lone data entry clerk to enter into the agency’s computers; the clerk then sends the paper copies to the courts.
“The more hands it goes through, the more chances for error there are,” Solano says.
The paper maze thickens in the courts. In Yalman’s Municipal Court office, for instance, stacks of files spill over every horizontal surface, and lean ponderously off a shelf. In Magistrate Court, files are often missing crucial documents, and sometimes get lost entirely.
The escalation of Valdez’ littering citation illustrates how the Magistrate Court, with its old-fashioned methods, handles a hard-to-find defendant.
According to the court docket, police cited Valdez for littering in August 2009. A full five months later, she was sent a criminal summons, ordering her to appear in court on Feb. 27, 2010. The day before her court date, Valdez’ summons came back as undelivered mail.
Another summons was issued and, on March 23, Magistrate Judge Richard Padilla issued a bench warrant for her failure to appear. The following day, the state Motor Vehicles Division suspended Valdez’ license, which she may or may not have known.
On April 29—at which point Judge Segura took over Valdez’ case—a local police officer served her warrant. She spent that night in jail.
The next morning, she pleaded guilty to her charges, and agreed to pay $411 in fines for the initial littering violation plus court fees.
On May 30, according to the court, Valdez missed her first payment. Two weeks later, her failure to pay led to the issuance of yet another bench warrant.
On the evening of July 22, the Española Police Department arrested Valdez. Santa Fe County jailers released her from custody on July 30.
Valdez may have blown several chances to make good. But though her time has been served, her name was not immediately cleared: As of Aug. 5, the electronic docket did not reflect her latest arrest and release from jail—suggesting, potentially, that she could still be stopped and taken in over the bench warrant and fines she’d just paid through jail time.
The incomplete file also suggests, according to AOC Deputy Director Patrick Simpson, that “Erica could have been in jail a lot longer” had the AOC’s Pacheco, who is also serving as interim Santa Fe Magistrate Court manager, not been actively checking the inmates booked into county jail.
Criminal lawyers, police and judges share a common plight. Against the general public’s relentless campaign of bad behavior, there are the authorities’ often-futile attempts to bring order.
To hear some authorities tell it, jailing speeders who miss court appointments may be society’s only bulwark against anarchy.
“I don’t know about you, but I’ve never forgotten court,” Randall Van Vleck, a lawyer for the New Mexico Municipal League who helps train judges around the state, tells SFR. “I have little sympathy for that [excuse], frankly. A lot of people are like, ‘Well, it’s animal control. It’s my dog pooping on someone’s yard. I’m not going to court over that.’ If everyone felt that way about every crime, we’d have complete lawlessness.”
And yet detaining non-criminal offenders strikes many as excessive.
“We’ve been very concerned about anybody doing jail time who doesn’t need to be there—particularly over things like failure to appear, where people spend more time in jail than on the original charge,” Dangler, the public defender, says.
Expecting college-educated adults with calendars and cell phones to make appointments and understand legalese is one thing. Expecting disenfranchised people with “disintegrating lives” to meet those obligations, Dangler says, is quite another.
“I understand the frustration of the magistrate judges—it’s like herding cats,” Dangler says. “A lot of my clients, their lives are a mess—and we give them more things to do. We give them more busy work, more appointments, and they’re already proving to us that they can’t handle those things.”
Beyond the particulars of any one case, there are bigger concerns. Such as, does jailing non-criminal offenders serve any greater good?
Recall those 66 people jailed over nothing more than unpaid Magistrate Court traffic fines, and consider: Only 59 Magistrate Court defendants paid their fines through community service in the last year.
In other words, the system pushes more people into jail than it commits to public service.
“The purpose of a citation is not to be punitive, but rather to correct behavior,” Judge Segura says. “That’s the position I take in this court.”
Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that such strict punishments are improving people’s behavior, as intended. “I don’t know if we’re getting people to drive better by throwing them in jail or not,” Judge Yalman says.
Even some police say current warrant policies may be too unforgiving.
“A lot of times, people just ignore it and think it’s no big deal…[but] there probably is a percentage of people who just cannot afford to take off work,” Sheriff Solano says.
Speaking of affordability: Can local governments continue spending $800 trying to collect $400 in fines?
“If you’ve got a guy bombing down St. Francis at 70 miles per hour, he’s creating a quantifiable [financial] risk,” the AOC’s Simpson says. “It might be worth 800 bucks to get him to stop.”
No one pretends that the current approach to justice in Santa Fe adds up financially. Indeed, with the Great Recession wreaking havoc on budgets at all levels of government, it may be money that finally forces change.
New Mexico’s courts are caught in a bind.
To fix their antiquated systems and procedures, they need quite a lot of money. But the state Legislature is slashing budgets all around, which will inevitably result in more clerical errors and fewer collected fines.
“Everyone…knows we could use two more judges and 10 more clerks. But we’re not going to get it,” Simpson says. According to Simpson, the courts are staffed with a formula from a decade-old workforce study based on inaccurate population figures.
While the courts wait for the Budget Fairy to bless them with new computers and extra employees, there is another way the state might cut back on the warrant backlog: Amnesty.
A US Marshals Service-funded “Fugitive Safe Surrender” campaign in Las Cruces last month led 1,071 people with bench warrants to begin paying off their tickets, making a significant dent in Doña Ana County’s backlog of 18,400 outstanding warrants.
The campaign was heavily publicized on local TV and in the papers.
Santa Fe Magistrate Court tried something similar last November with its traffic cases. Its budget was rather more modest, and the event was not as successful.
The AOC’s Pacheco says letters were sent to every person with a Magistrate Court traffic warrant issued. Because so much official correspondence goes undelivered, the court also hired a private company to try to track down the warrant holders and reach them by telephone.
Of the 3,000 people the court tried to reach, only 65 showed up, despite the court’s promise that traffic offenders would not be arrested.
“We have some sense that people are afraid,” Pacheco says. “On the first day, people were trickling in. They were all looking at us, waiting for the cops to come around the corner.”
More people came on the second day, once word spread that the court’s no-arrest promise was legit.
“If I could say one thing to the community, it’s that we don’t want people to go to jail” when they show up to take care of a traffic ticket, Pacheco says.
Such promises might be more believable if state executive agencies, local law enforcement and the Legislature adopted certain bench warrant reforms under consideration by the AOC.
The agency’s Simpson and Weinstein hesitate to describe their proposals in detail until the New Mexico Supreme Court approves.
Ideas—some of which have been tried in other states—include doing away entirely with the issuance of bench warrants for certain low-level citations, or making most traffic citations civil, rather than criminal, offenses.
But the AOC’s discussions with local law enforcement agencies have generated no agreement with any proposal, in part thanks to the differences in workload between urban and rural jurisdictions.
“There isn’t a real strong consensus across the board,” Simpson says.
That’s putting it mildly. While the AOC’s Weinstein initially described the pattern of mistaken bench warrant arrests as a widespread problem, Judge Segura says such mistakes are so “few and far between” that he feels there’s no need to revisit court bench warrant policies.
Weinstein says most mistaken arrests originate with the state’s uniform traffic citation, designed by the Motor Vehicle Division. It may be the only such form in the country, AOC officials say, that forces drivers to decide on the spot whether to plead guilty and pay a fine, or to challenge the charge and set a court date. The form also forces patrol officers to act as impromptu field judges, turning what should be a 10-minute exchange of paper into a half-hour trial.
When people change their minds about contesting a citation, the bureaucracy has a seizure; the MVD receives a mystery check in the mail, while a local judge issues another warrant for a driver who failed to appear.
Which, with a slight variation, is basically what happened to Eric Raymond Buckley.
Buckley’s motorcycle, a graduation gift from his father, is a loss; fortunately, he says the insurance company will reimburse its full value. (Basil Grillo, who ran over the bike and left a note, did not respond to SFR’s message.)
ZZ, at least, is doing well, as is Buckley—aside from his fresh sense of cynicism.
Last month, as Buckley waited in line to show his animal control citation, stamped “PAID,” to the Municipal Court judge, he saw a poster inside the courthouse that blew his mind: “Don’t go to jail because of your dog,” it read.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw that,” Buckley recalls. “[I thought], ‘This is a ticket factory.’”