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:
1. 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.
2. On the night of July 3, a Hollywood director ran over Buckley’s motorcycle, which had been parked on the street outside his house.
3. 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, Cowboys & Aliens—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.