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Santa Fe's Most Wanted

Is the justice system working?

August 11, 2010, 1:00 am

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.

New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts staff attorney Shari Weinstein is a former prosecutor. She says the AOC is working on a fix for the source of many erroneous bench warrants.

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.’”  SFR

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