Drained Defenders

After NM's top public defender takes a hike, his successor has his work cut out for him

On Monday morning, Bennett Baur waits at the magistrate courthouse for Judge Donita Sena to call his next client’s case. The woman has spent the past 22 days in jail after getting picked up on a year-old warrant for driving with a revoked license. The arresting officer, acting as prosecutor, offers a deal: the woman pleads guilty and receives credit for time served.

Before Sena calls the defendant, Baur advises her to hold off on the plea offer. Pleading guilty would bar her from driving for up to a year. But the 26-year-old seems weary of court matters and decides instead to accept the deal in front of Judge Sena.

A brief moment of confusion ensues. "I'm not giving her credit," Sena says, mistakenly claiming that the woman's jail stint arose from a different case. After Baur corrects her, Sena double-checks her computer and acknowledges the error, agreeing to release the defendant as soon as possible.

It's been a strange week for the Law Offices of the Public Defender, the state-funded agency that represents low-income people charged with crimes. Last Monday, Chief Public Defender Jorge Alvarado resigned after 28 months of service, citing disagreements with the chairman of the commission that oversees the agency.

In a letter, the former chief airs a number of grievances that spurred his resignation. Most explosively, Alvarado accuses chairman Michael Stout of intentionally draining the statewide public defender budget to "deny representation for some indigent clients in order to create a crisis of constitutional dimensions," with the intention of forcing the Legislature's hand.

While individuals within the office may disagree on strategy, pretty much everyone acknowledges that the agency is short staffed. During the last legislative session, Alvarado requested more than $44 million to fix this problem. Lawmakers granted less than 2 percent of his request.

Such are the challenges Baur inherited when he assumed the role of acting chief public defender last week. His new administrative duties pile on top of his responsibilities as head of public defenders in District 1 (Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, Los Alamos and Taos counties). That's not to mention his own caseload, about four at any given time. In 2015, Baur's 14 staff attorneys each handled an average of 240 felony or 670 misdemeanor cases, sometimes working up to 70 hours per week.

Baur says his office does "the very best for our clients with what we have" but acknowledges that oversights happen. The Sixth Amendment not only grants criminal defendants the right to a lawyer, but one that will provide "effective assistance of counsel." Yet in New Mexico, not every piece of evidence receives the scrutiny it deserves. Not every client with a compelling case for a bond reduction files a request for one.

Baur began his career as a public defender in Albuquerque in 1992, followed by stints in private practice and the Santa Fe DA's office. He took the helm of the District 1 public defender's office in 2008. Though he is a lawyer at heart, any discussion with Baur about work eventually morphs into big picture talk. "We work with the Legislature because we can't fix things one client at a time. We have too much to do. The courts have too much to do. The prosecutor has too much to do," Baur says. "All these laws that they pass that don't rein in violence are counterproductive. So we have to address this at a different level."

A few hours after he left the courthouse on Monday morning, Baur would face Judge Sena again. But this time, he speaks with her from the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Center through a video monitor.

Baur sits at a table with two stacks of paper: a big pile of criminal complaints, and a smaller pile of sheets titled "How to Apply for a Public Defender." He tells Sena that he might have to take off a little early for a meeting with mental health advocates.

Guards lead 22 defendants into the room and sit them behind Baur on benches. Most of the defendants are men. Six women in tan jumpsuits, contrasting a sea of maroon, occupy a row in the back. All of them wear handcuffs and leg restraints. They're accused of crimes ranging from heroin possession to domestic violence.

Baur faces the crowd behind him and gives some blanket advice to everyone: "I am here to represent you for this hearing only. No matter what happens, I recommend you plead not guilty at this point. We don't have a lot of time, so I won't have the opportunity to advise you on your case. You really gain nothing from pleading guilty today."

That a public lawyer is present for a jailhouse arraignment is a remarkable development. Santa Fe public defenders only recently started attending these hearings about a year and a half ago, after a defendant became irate, flipped a table and picked up a contempt of court charge. At that point, Baur explains, "We realized that this is part of our obligation."

As Sena calls each defendant's name, they walk forward and take a seat next to Baur. The judge reads the charge and then asks a series of questions: Did you understand your constitutional rights? Do you understand your charge and potential penalty? Would you like to have an attorney assist you in this matter?

Each time after Sena recites her spiel, Baur hits a button on the conference phone, muting the jail end of the line, and confers with the defendant sitting next to him. "Okay, you're going to get out of here. Get in touch with us as soon as you can," Baur repeats all afternoon, before directing defendants to a correctional officer, who instructs them to sign their paperwork. Handcuffs complicate this step.

Most defendants plead not guilty and are released on unsecured bonds, meaning they are free to reenter society as long as they obey the law and show up for their court date.

The hearings end at 3:20, a little less than two hours after they began. That's on the shorter side for custody arraignments, which have been known to go on until 5, an hour after the magistrate court closes.

"It looks like you can get to your meeting," Sena says to Baur.

"Lovely. That's just what I wanted," he replies with a grin. "Another meeting."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story spelled Baur's last name incorrectly. 

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