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.
Yusef Casanova believes he has enough evidence to prove federal law enforcement targeted him because he’s black. Casanova, whose case NMID highlighted in a May 2017 investigation, is asking a federal judge to drop federal drug and gun charges from a controversial monthslong 2016 sting operation in Albuquerque and give him his freedom back. The motion, filed last month in federal court, contends there is evidence that shows agents and informants of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) racially profiled Casanova and other African Americans in the operation. Casanova sold an ounce of meth and a gun to an undercover ATF agent in June 2016; he was arrested weeks later and has been locked up pending trial ever since. His white supplier — who was present when Casanova brokered the drug sale — was never arrested.
For the second time in a year, Albuquerque police officer Joshua Montaño found himself handcuffing a high-profile politico with ties to Gov. Susana Martinez. Montaño arrested state Rep. Monica Youngblood on May 20 on suspicion of aggravated drunken driving, first offense, after he believed she performed poorly on field sobriety tests at a DWI checkpoint on Albuquerque’s west side, then refused to take a breath-alcohol test. A year to the day earlier, on May 20, 2017, the veteran DWI officer arrested one of the state’s most influential political insiders, former Martinez Environment Department secretary and current New Mexico Oil and Gas Association President Ryan Flynn, on suspicion of DWI. Flynn’s case was dismissed; Youngblood’s is just beginning to wend its way through the courts. Given the Albuquerque Republican’s high-profile stance as a Martinez-friendly, tough-on-crime legislator, her unopposed victory in the June 5 primary election and calls for her to abandon her legislative seat, Youngblood’s arrest has kicked up a political stir.
For the first time, SFR and New Mexico In Depth can present vignettes of Gov. Susana Martinez’s pardon files — stories about crime, punishment and redemption. If not for a years-long legal fight, the public likely would never have seen the stories. In 2013, SFR sued the governor for failing to turn over various public records. The most significant of them were the applications people had made to the governor requesting pardons. Martinez’s office argued executive privilege shielded the pardon files from disclosure.
An analysis of hundreds of pages of documents shows that Gov. Susana Martinez has granted just three pardons since taking office, and petitions for clemency have fallen by 75 percent compared with her predecessors.
A debate over how so many black people came to be arrested in a 2016 gun- and drug-sting operation in Albuquerque is playing out in the city’s federal courthouse. Following months of silence from the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a narrative is beginning to emerge. It’s a story of good police work. According to this version, a pivotal moment happened a few days after the operation started in April 2016. Albuquerque Police Department detective Vic Hernandez handed ATF Special Agent Russell Johnson two sets of documents.
On her last day as chief of the U.S. District Court for New Mexico in February, Judge Christina Armijo granted a motion from the lawyers representing Lonnie Jackson and Diamond Coleman. Prosecutors, the order said, must turn over all background checks run through the National Crime Information Centers (NCIC) database during a 2016 law enforcement sting operation in Albuquerque. Jackson and Coleman, two of the 28 black people arrested in the federal Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF)’s operation, are trying to prove the agency racially profiled them in a massive undercover operation. Armijo’s order represented a step toward that goal. The NCIC queries, not only for the 103 people arrested during the four-month operation but everyone ATF agents investigated but did not pursue, would enable them to test their theory.
Days before federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials announced more than 100 arrests from an undercover operation in Albuquerque in 2016, the sting’s lead agent was thinking about who, exactly, had been arrested.
“If anybody ever asks if we are going after the worst of the worst or righteous targets, show them this list,” Special Agent Russell Johnson of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) wrote in an Aug. 4, 2016, email to colleagues.”These are people for our second wave takedown.”
The email names 24 individuals and notes each person’s probation or parole status: 14 had successfully completed their obligations to the state, two were listed as “current and compliant probationer/parolee,” three had never been on probation or parole and four were “absconders.”
The 24 names are blacked out, as are the sender and recipients of the email and a handful of other words. Eight days after Johnson dashed off the email, a phalanx of high-ranking local, state and federal law enforcement officials told the press they had taken “the worst of the worst” off the city’s crime-ridden streets. The controversial operation has come under scrutiny over the past year for the highly disproportionate number of black people who were arrested. Meanwhile, the sting netted few, if any, of the hardened, repeat violent criminals supposedly targeted.