DA with six-figure salary claims poverty, judge grants her free lawyer (updated)

Editor’s note:New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur told NMID reporter Jeff Proctor during an interview in late June that he knew nothing about a public defender being appointed for southern New Mexico district attorney Francesca Estevez. On Monday evening, Baur emailed to say, in fact, his office had hired a private attorney, Keren Fenderson, to file a motion on Estevez’s behalf without informing Estevez. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Baur confirmed that he was unaware of the arrangement at the time of the interview with Proctor. Francesca Estevez is too poor to pay for a lawyer. That’s according to state District Judge Douglas Driggers of Las Cruces, who made the finding in a May 1 court order appointing the public defender’s office to represent Estevez as prosecutors pursue alleged violations of the Government Misconduct Act against her.

Police Watchdog raises concerns over State Police ‘Surge’ in ABQ

A member of Albuquerque’s official police watchdog group is questioning the tactics and results of the recent “Metro Surge Operation,” in which 50 New Mexico State Police officers flooded the city ostensibly to help fight violent crime. “This is the perfect atmosphere, the perfect storm for civil rights violations, and it completely undermines the serious energy people have invested in police reform in Albuquerque,” Chelsea Van Deventer of the Albuquerque Police Oversight Board told New Mexico In Depth earlier this week. Homicides and non-fatal shootings have gone up in Albuquerque in recent months, including the high-profile murder of a University of New Mexico baseball player outside a Nob Hill bar last month. In response, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mayor Tim Keller, both Democrats, agreed on the “surge,” with Keller’s office saying publicly the operation would focus on “targeting violent crime in Albuquerque.”

The results, according to a KOAT-TV story, have not matched the stated goal. The station reported 452 arrests by State Police during the operation; 300 people were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor crimes.

Several significant criminal justice bills still alive as session nears end

Democratic legislative leaders predicted criminal justice reform would be among the top priorities for the 60-day session that began in January. It appears they were right. Several substantial shifts in how New Mexico approaches crime and punishment remain alive as the session speeds toward its conclusion on Saturday. Some of them have been years in the making. A Senate bill to “ban the box,” prohibiting private sector employers from inquiring about people’s past criminal records in the early stages of an employment process, has passed the upper chamber and appears headed for a vote in the House.

NM lacks criminal justice data on race, ethnicity

From traffic stops to incarceration rates to drug arrests, New Mexico trails other states and the federal system in collecting key criminal justice data, particularly on race and ethnicity, a New Mexico In Depth analysis has found. And despite a push from state lawmakers this 60-day legislative session to improve the state’s data collection efforts to inform better, “evidence-based” criminal justice policies, searching for potential racial disparities in policing, prisons and other areas doesn’t appear much of a priority. “It’s puzzling,” said Steve Allen, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. “If we’re going to have some sort of data-sharing process in place and data gathering, I would think race has to be central to that. It’s just gonna take a little bit of ingenuity and a little bit of prioritization from people in power.”

There are no state rules or laws that require law enforcement agencies to track the race or ethnicity of people their officers contact, stop in vehicles or arrest, according to the top two officials at the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, the state’s clearinghouse for criminal justice information.

ACLU: NM has flawed data about solitary confinement

Cover of ACLU-NM report about discrepancy in NM solitary confinement statistics. The American Civil Liberties Union New Mexico appears to have uncovered a significant statistical deficiency in New Mexico criminal justice data. In September 2018, the state Corrections Department reported 4 percent of inmates in its prisons were being held in solitary confinement — defined as spending 22 hours or more a day alone for 15 or more consecutive days. A research team working with the ACLU found that the rate was actually 9 percent. Steve Allen, policy director for the ACLU of New Mexico, chalks the disparity up to a lack of uniform policies, practices and data collection.

Legislators aim to give convicted felons second chance

Warren Rivera walked out of federal prison nearly two months ago after serving about seven years for his conviction on a charge of illegal firearm possession. First on the 40 year old’s list: Get a job. As a “person who has totally changed his life,” Rivera fired off 30 job applications. Not one employer has contacted him for so much as an interview. “If you [the employer] don’t sit down and look at me in the eye, you’ll never know you had the perfect candidate,” Rivera, who is African American, told New Mexico In Depth in a recent interview.

Lujan Grisham says her administration will look into Hepatitis C prison problems

At a news conference Wednesday, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham responded to a New Mexico In Depth story that showed while the state has the largest known share of prisoners diagnosed with hepatitis C in the nation, few are being treated. That’s despite new, nearly fail-safe treatment medications coming onto the market at increasingly low prices.  

New Mexico faces difficult choices, Lujan Grisham said, partly because so much is out of its control. Incarcerated individuals who contract the disease on the outside might only become aware of their plight after a screening in prison, Lujan Grisham said. Beginning in 2009, New Mexico began offering all prisoners screening for hepatitis C, which is not a universal practice.

An ignored epidemic in New Mexico’s prisons

The treatment was simple — three pills a day, best taken on a full stomach — and it cured Gabriel Serna of hepatitis C in eight weeks. He just had to wait eight years to get it. In theory, revolutionary medications have made the blood-borne, sometimes-fatal infection curable, so people with the disease need not endure the inexorable and irreversible damage it causes to their livers. Unless they are in one of New Mexico’s prisons, like Serna was for much of his wait. That’s because although the state’s inmates have the highest prevalence of hepatitis C of any group in New Mexico — more than four in 10 are infected — the prisons are hardly treating any of them: Out of some 3,000 prisoners diagnosed with the disease, just 46 received treatment for hepatitis C during the 2018 fiscal year.

APD officer: 2016 federal sting operation focused on ‘volume,’ not ‘higher-level guys’

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.