Tim Hotle, a 12-year veteran of the Albuquerque Police Department, in sworn testimony this week undercut federal authorities’ long-running narrative about a controversial 2016 law enforcement operation that snatched up disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics. During his 45 minutes or so on the witness stand, Hotle told U.S. Senior District Judge James Parker that as a representative of APD he had helped plan the Albuquerque operation pushed by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the local U.S. Attorney’s Office. Authorities have repeatedly contended they arrested “the worst of the worst,” and a summary report of the operation stated that its goal was to infiltrate drug trafficking organizations “facilitated by” Mexican cartels. Most of the 103 people arrested, however, were picked up for their involvement in small-quantity drug sales; few had the types of violent criminal histories authorities said they were going after. Hotle’s testimony further undermined the federal government’s claims.
“We weren’t after the higher-level guys,” Hotle said from the stand during a court hearing involving one of the defendants arrested in the operation.
Lawmakers are hopeful that 2019 brings an opportunity to significantly overhaul major parts of the New Mexico criminal justice system, after what one key state senator called a “lost decade” that saw myriad ideas but scant action. Bills are expected to address chronically high crime rates across the state, with a focus on speedier justice in cases involving violence and more lifeboats for people whose lesser crimes have saddled them with the stigma of a criminal record. There’s talk of a massive “omnibus” bill that would feature changes to New Mexico’s probation and parole systems, reparations for crime victims, the way law enforcement uses eyewitness testimony to seek convictions and several other laws. Then there are the reforms that, in years past, have found support from both political parties but ultimately met the veto pen of Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor who for eight years stuck to her belief that New Mexico needed tougher penalties for lawbreakers, but largely stiff-armed proposals to address systemic injustices. Those shifts — likely to be proposed in individual bills — would include limiting the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons and jails, creating a pathway for some offenders to have their criminal records wiped clean after a period of time and prohibiting private-sector employers from inquiring about job applicants’ past convictions in most instances.
Yusef Casanova has sat in a prison cell for 27 months — charged with federal drug and gun offenses after his arrest in a 2016 undercover sting operation in Albuquerque. On Dec. 20, his attorney will drive him to the Four Winds Recovery Center, a drug rehabilitation facility, just outside Farmington. It’s an unusual turn of events: A federal judge ordered the release of Casanova, who is facing decades in federal prison if he’s convicted. Casanova was swept up in an undercover operation that arrested a highly disproportionate percentage of black people.
Former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez will stay in his $118,000 job despite heated demands from Albuquerque police reform activists and others to fire the longtime lawman, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller told NMID Friday afternoon. The mayor added that Martinez’s role in a controversial 2016 law enforcement operation that spawned allegations of racial profiling never came up as he deliberated whether to hire him for a sensitive city police department job. “I respect their input,” Keller said of critics calling for Martinez’s firing, many of whom campaigned for the progressive Democrat last fall. “If there’s any differentiation between what he’s trying to do and my vision for the city and what I can do, then obviously it’s not gonna last long.”
The controversy over Martinez’s hiring flared over the weekend after the Keller administration announced it last week. The protests had to do with his oversight and participation in a four-month undercover operation by the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in southeast Albuquerque in the spring and summer of 2016.
Leonard Waites was surprised. The executive director of the state Martin Luther King Jr. Commission had just learned from a reporter that Mayor Tim Keller had hired former U.S. Attorney and defeated congressional candidate Damon Martinez as a senior policy adviser for the Albuquerque Police Department. Waites, who is black and also serves as chairman of the Albuquerque Police Oversight Board, was outraged last year by the results of a large-scale federal law enforcement operation. Overseen by Martinez, agents had arrested a grossly disproportionate number of black people for relatively minor crimes in 2016. “I have very, very serious concerns about this,” Waites said Monday of Martinez’s hire, adding that he had heard nothing about it from the Keller administration.
Over the last 18 months NMID has closely examined the ATF sting operation, its design, its impact and the legal wrangling that continues to play out in federal court in more than two dozen stories.
Of the 103 people arrested 28 — 27 percent of the total — were black. That’s compared to the city’s 3 percent black population. Further, black people made up just 5 percent of defendants in gun and drug cases in New Mexico’s federal courts during a 10-year period. Racial profiling allegations and admonitions from federal judges have followed the team that descended on Albuquerque around the nation, NMID found.
Attack ads, political bottle tossing and recriminations have marked this year’s race to replace outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez, who is leaving office due to term limits. The campaign’s increasingly dark tone illustrates the state of play in politics here in New Mexico and across the nation. But under the tribalism lies something else: A set of stark differences in visions held by the two candidates, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce, who have both abandoned seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for a shot at the Governor’s Mansion. During three televised debates, Pearce and Lujan Grisham have hurled broadsides and frontal attacks at one another on a host of issues bedeviling the state — from education to immigration, economic development to marijuana legalization, energy to water conservation. Clashes over how to address New Mexico’s persistently high crime rates, particularly in Albuquerque, have torched some of the race’s oxygen, too.
A new federal court filing indicates the practice of secrecy at New Mexico federal courts expands beyond the improper sealing of documents to improperly closing off court proceedings from the public. Assistant Federal Public Defenders John Robbenhaar and Aric Elsenheimer filed a document last week alleging that an Aug. 3 court hearing was sealed — meaning no one besides parties to the case could enter during the proceeding — without their knowledge. A transcript of the hearing also was sealed without their input, the filing says. On Sept.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers have shielded records from public view without a judge’s order in New Mexico’s federal courts, an apparent violation of the U.S. District Court of New Mexico’s own rules, New Mexico In Depth has learned. Judges, not lawyers, are supposed to decide which documents are made available to the public and which should remain secret through an established protocol based in part on decades of case law: Attorneys must submit a written request asking a judge to seal records and a judge must consent before records are sealed. Despite this well-known standard, in numerous instances spread among three criminal cases, the New Mexico offices of the U.S. Attorney and the Federal Public Defender have decided unilaterally to make documents secret without a judge’s order, according to a review of federal court records by NMID. It is not clear how many of the thousands of federal court records each year have been sealed this way, but one federal public defender says the practice has gone on for years. “There has been a long-standing practice in the District of New Mexico for parties to elect to file a document under seal, without prior approval of the district court,” attorney John Robbenhaar wrote in an emailed response to questions from NMID.
The secret filing means the public cannot view — or scrutinize — the U.S. Attorney’s defense of Yusef Casanova’s arrest, which federal public defender Brian Pori has challenged. Last month Pori argued in a motion that he had enough evidence to prove ATF agents and informants targeted Casanova because he’s black and asked Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker to drop methamphetamine trafficking and illegal firearm possession charges.
In a filing Wednesday afternoon prosecutors noted their reason for responding to Pori’s original motion under seal, writing it “identifies by name a number of uncharged subjects of the (operation) and references the content of other sealed filings.”
But Pori told NMID the government did not need to name people who had been identified for investigation but not arrested. Prosecutors could’ve blacked the names out of the document, but left its defense of Casanova’s arrest for the public to see, he noted.