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The Money Pit

Santa Fe County and Magistrate Court dispute ownership of unclaimed bucks

March 11, 2009, 12:00 am

In the summer of 1999, Santa Fe Police busted two drug traffickers—Arturo Munoz and Paul Gutierrez—at a trailer park on Airport Road, catching them with cocaine, a digital scale, ledgers filled with numbers and $9,000 in cash.

Each posted $25,000 in cash bonds and disappeared, leaving their cases open and their money unclaimed. Gutierrez’ $25,000 was deposited with Santa Fe Magistrate Court and then moved to an Administrative Office of the Courts account.
As for Munoz’ bail money, nearly a decade later it’s the largest lump in an $88,746 pile of unclaimed money marked “Santa Fe Magistrate Court” at the New Mexico Tax & Revenue Department’s Unclaimed Property Office.

The UPO is a repository for everything from abandoned safety deposit boxes to uncollected stock dividends. If your mobile phone provider can’t track you down, it will route your refund check there. When a company or agency needs to clear its accounts payable file, it deposits the money in the UPO where, theoretically, it can be found later by the owner.

It’s easy to find out about your money, but getting it can be difficult, according to Albuquerque-based private investigator Eric Griego, who has tracked down unclaimed property for 20 years. “I can tell you that their database is just riddled with errors,” he says.

As for the county’s $88,746, a series of events led it to land in the UPO. But now that it’s there, neither the county nor Santa Fe Magistrate Court wants to claim it.

Until July 2008, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office managed the jail’s cash-bond system. Individuals paid bonds in cash, which was then transferred to the sheriff’s account. The Sheriff’s Office then issued a check to whatever court had jurisdiction over a particular case.

In ’08, the county took over bail operations at the jail. When closing out the sheriff’s account in advance of the changeover, county auditors found various courts had failed to cash $100,000 worth of checks. Santa Fe Magistrate Court was the top offender. It had 77 uncashed checks, some dating back to the mid-’90s.

“I gave each court an ample opportunity to resolve the issue,” Accounting Oversight Manager Helen Perraglio, who handled the sheriff’s account, tells SFR. “Some issues were resolved. Some courts were very, very receptive and we were able to figure out if it was an error on our side. We were able to actually reissue a couple checks that nobody had dealt with in years.”

Santa Fe Magistrate Court never responded.

“They weren’t returning my calls,” Perraglio says. “They didn’t respond to my letter or any of my backup [documentation].”

Finally, in April 2008, the Finance Division forwarded the unclaimed bond money to the UPO. The money was not deposited under the original names of the people who deposited cash for their bonds. Rather, each sum was deposited under Magistrate Court’s name.

SFR first noticed Santa Fe Magistrate Court’s unclaimed property, aka cash, last month while running searches through the state’s online database for unclaimed property.

Marie Salazar, field services supervisor at the Administrative Office of the Courts, researched the 77 unclaimed amounts. She says that in each case, the court had already accepted payment from the county and therefore this money doesn’t belong to Magistrate Court, despite what the county claims.

“Something happened at the Sheriff’s Office,” she tells SFR. “They had all the wrong check numbers.”

After speaking with Salazar on the issue, Perraglio tells SFR the county only plans to ask the UPO to return $45,000, while awaiting more information on some of the other claims. But the county won’t be spending the money.

“Yeah, we’ll get that back, but it’s definitely not our money,” Perraglio says. “It’s just going to be held in our trust account until whoever posted the bail contacts the court and says, ‘Look, you never paid me.’ We have to rely on the court to contact us and say, ‘You owe us this amount for this certain case.’”

Even if the county wanted to spend the money, there could be a problem. State law prevents the county from adding money collected by the courts to its budget; it has to go back to the court.

“If within a year or two that money hasn’t been taken by some entity, it’s going to end up back in Unclaimed Property,” Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano says, noting that much of the current unclaimed bond money predates his tenure.
As for Munoz’ $25,000, that money could be considered forfeit because Munoz never showed up for his hearing, but a court would have to pick it up first.

“Here’s a case where there’s $25,000 and we know who paid the bond, we know whose case it was, we pretty much know what happened with the case itself, but yet, nobody wants to take responsibility for the money,” Solano says. “I wish I could take responsibility for it and just put it in our budget, but there’s no legal means for me to do that.”


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