The Rio Rancho Governing Body has decided not to remove driving on a revoked or suspended license from city code, so hundreds of cases will stay in municipal court instead of going to magistrate court.
The ordinance against driving on a revoked or suspended license, also called unlawful use of a license or UUL, generated about 590 charges for Rio Rancho Municipal Court in 2019.
At the July 23 governing body meeting, city councilors voted unanimously, with Councilor Jennifer Flor absent, to repeal ordinances against assault, battery, petty misdemeanor aggravated battery and assault on a peace officer. It was the second and final vote needed for the repeal.
City Councilor Bob Tyler, the sponsor of the repeals, said the repealed ordinances account for about 130 charges in municipal court last year.
Repealing the ordinances will require offenses to be sent to Sandoval County Magistrate Court.
The charge of driving on a revoked or suspended license had been among those being repealed, but city councilors voted to remove it from that action.
“We’ve looked at this and we think this is the best way to deal with crime,” City Attorney Greg Lauer said.
Tyler has said magistrate court has stiffer penalties and access to more rehabilitation resources, which will hold offenders more accountable.
Also, the city has to pay for public defenders and Sandoval County Detention Center housing for people cited into municipal court. The State of New Mexico pays those costs for suspects cited into magistrate court.
Rio Rancho Police officers will have to prosecute the cases being newly sent to magistrate court. In municipal court, they prosecute many cases, but a city-employed prosecutor, Gina Manfredi, handles those involving defense attorneys, complex or high-profile cases, or cases in which an officer asks for help, said Municipal Judge G. Robert Cook.
“Everyone agrees she’s a good attorney,” Cook said of Manfredi.
Lauer said 90 percent of assault charges, 81 percent of battery charges and 91 percent of aggravated battery cases in municipal court were dismissed in 2019. One case of assault on a peace officer appeared in municipal court last year, resulting in a conviction, but the offense has a high rate of dismissal, too, he said.
Cook said many assault and battery charges are dismissed because the victim, the complainant or a witness fails to come to court. He said sometimes police officers may decide to dismiss charges as well.
“They are not dismissed willy-nilly,” Cook said.
Laws dictate when cases can or can’t be dismissed, he said.
Cook said he’s worked in the legal realm — as a New Mexico State Police officer and then municipal judge — for 40 years, and based on that experience, he believes Rio Rancho Municipal Court dismissal rates are comparable with other courts.
Rio Rancho Police and Communications Association President Cpl. Richard Martinez has said officers tend to prefer to cite cases into municipal court instead of magistrate court because they’re more likely to get a conviction, and they’re able to get back out on the street faster.
Lauer said municipal cases can be appealed to the 13th Judicial District Court for a brand-new trial, and since the defense has already seen the prosecution’s case, he or she can exploit it. However, in magistrate court, the defense attorney sees the good work of police officers and encourages a plea that stays, he said.
He also said he and Tyler held “extensive conversations” about the repeals with city attorney’s staff, the 13th Judicial District Attorney, police and the municipal judge and court staff.
At the governing body meeting, Police Chief Stewart Steele said that being from Florida, he had thought it was odd to charge people at the municipal level for assault, battery, misdemeanor aggravated battery and assault on a peace officer.
Deputy Police Chief Jason Bowie said that when he started working for what was then Rio Rancho Department of Public Safety in 1994, most people cited into municipal court were Rio Rancho residents. Now, he said, most of those people are from elsewhere.
Bowie doesn’t believe assault, battery, etc., should be petty misdemeanor crimes.
“I think we owe our citizens more than that,” he said.
He would like municipal court to focus on quality-of-life issues. Bowie appreciates that Cook organizes court proceedings to help officers get back on the street more quickly and said Cook runs a good court.
“Municipal court has served our department very well,” he said.
Bowie also said officers prosecute cases in magistrate court now, and he’s confident they can handle more, even though there may be a learning curve and some disappointments for them. He also said he believed the change would be positive in respect to overtime.
The repeals take effect later this month, 30 days after the passage of the ordinance.
Recently repealed city ordinances:
Assault, Ordinance 131.01: It is unlawful for any person to commit a battery upon the person of another, nor shall any person, by any unlawful act, threat or menacing conduct, cause another person to believe he is in danger of receiving an immediate battery, nor shall any person, by the use of insulting language toward another, impugn his honor, delicacy or reputation.
Battery, Ordinance 131.02: It is unlawful for any person to beat, strike, wound, inflict violence or apply force to the person of another, nor shall a person intentionally touch or apply force to the person of another in a rude, insolent, angry or hostile manner, except in connection with an exhibition duly authorized and licensed under law, or in lawful self-defense, or in the line of duty as a duly authorized police officer as circumstances warrant.
Aggravated battery, Ordinance 131.03: It is unlawful for any person to commit aggravated battery upon the person of another, nor shall any person unlawfully touch or apply force to the person of another with intent to injure that person or another, or inflict an injury to the person which is not likely to cause death or great bodily harm, but does cause painful temporary disfigurement or temporary loss or impairment of the functions of any member or organ of the body.
Assault upon a peace officer, Ordinance 131.19: (A) It is unlawful for any person to commit assault upon a peace officer. (B) Assault upon a peace officer consists of: (1) An attempt to commit a battery upon the person of a peace officer while he is in the lawful discharge of his duties; or (2) Any unlawful act, threat or menacing conduct which causes a police officer while he is in the lawful discharge of his duties to reasonably believe he is in danger of receiving an immediate battery.
(Source: City of Rio Rancho Municipal Code at codepublishing.com/NM/RioRancho)