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Santa Fe's Most Wanted

Is the justice system working?

August 11, 2010, 1:00 am

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.

Santa Fe Municipal Court Judge Ann Yalman says the court has gone through three different computer systems in an effort to update its record-keeping.

“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.
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