The City of Rio Rancho has been repealing criminal ordinances to send cases to Sandoval County Magistrate Court.
Supporters say the move means tougher sentences, but opponents say the latest repeals will leave police officers spending more time in court, prosecuting cases.
In December 2018, the Rio Rancho Governing Body repealed the city DWI ordinance, with the change becoming effective in May 2019.
On June 24, governing body members approved the first of two readings of the repeal of ordinances against assault, battery, aggravated battery, assault on a peace officer and driving on a revoked or suspended license, all petty misdemeanors. If it passes the second reading, the repeal would become effective 30 days later.
According to Rio Rancho Municipal Court information, those offenses represent 724 charges during 2019, or 27.4 percent of non-traffic charges last year. Of those, 590 of the charges were driving on a revoked or suspended license and 101 were battery.
“Sandoval County Magistrate Court in Bernalillo will have sufficient resources to handle the expected increased caseload from the anticipated July repeal of ordinances by the City of Rio Rancho,” said Karl W. Reifsteck, 13th Judicial District Court court executive officer and general counsel, as spokesman for the magistrate court.
Reasons for repeals
City Councilor Bob Tyler sponsored both rounds of repeals, saying that magistrate court can send people to rehabilitation programs, institute stiffer penalties and set longer probation periods. He said financial savings were part of the reasoning.
“But in the long run, it’s really about having more accountability for our criminal offenses within Sandoval County and the City of Rio Rancho,” he said.
Municipal Judge G. Robert Cook said he can also sentence people to rehab programs, and the stiffer penalties are maximums that magistrate judges don’t always impose.
At the June 24 meeting, City Attorney Greg Lauer said Tyler had requested the Legal Department look into ordinances on offenses covered in state statute with stiffer penalties.
“Where we have an issue of recidivism, we want them being addressed in a state court rather than being addressed in a municipal court,” Lauer said.
He said if an offender went through municipal court and then re-offended, judges in other courts wouldn’t know because municipal court records weren’t added to the state database.
Rio Rancho Municipal Court has an online records database, accessible through the city website. Magistrate and district court records, and records of some municipal courts, are available on the New Mexico Courts website.
By removing DWI cases from municipal court, Lauer said, the city saved $175,000 to $200,000 thus far on public defenders.
Also, the city must pay $100 per person per day to house offenders at Sandoval County Detention Center if they’re arrested and sent to municipal court instead of magistrate court. The state pays for inmates sent to magistrate court.
Lauer also pointed to the costs of municipal court decisions being appealed to district court, including police overtime pay. Magistrate decisions can also be appealed.
With the DWI charges handled at magistrate court, Lauer said the city saw an improvement in the number of DWI arrests and convictions not being appealed.
Thirteenth Judicial District Attorney Lemuel Martinez, who isn’t running for re-election in November, said repeal of the DWI ordinance in Rio Rancho added 500-plus cases to the 300 or 400 cases per year his office already prosecuted in Sandoval County Magistrate Court.
He had to hire another prosecutor to handle the added caseload, despite not getting extra funding from the legislature, he said.
For the 20 years he’s been DA, Lemuel Martinez said, his office has prosecuted only domestic violence and DWI cases in magistrate court. DA prosecutors will not handle the cases from the newest round of repeals, he said.
That means officers who make the arrests would have to handle prosecutions, being required to follow the same procedures as attorneys. He added that officers could sit in magistrate court for hours, waiting for their cases to come before the judge, not just for the trial but also the long pre-trial process.
A city-employed attorney now prosecutes all cases in municipal court.
“The prosecutions aren’t getting done the right way over there,” Tyler said.
An email from Lauer and Tyler said the city would consult with the district attorney elected in November to learn that person’s policies.
“If the DA doesn’t prosecute, then officers will prosecute the charges,” the email said.
Rio Rancho Police and Communications Association President Cpl. Richard Martinez said no one consulted or alerted the union before repealing ordinances. He doesn’t believe the move is wise, although he understands the city is trying to save money.
“That’s going to make it difficult for us to do our jobs,” he said.
The union is discussing the matter with city officials, Richard Martinez said.
“Most of our officers wanted to cite into municipal (court) because we got our cases heard right away and had less chance of dismissal,” he said.
Cook, who is in the middle of his third four-year term as municipal judge, said he has organized municipal-court operations to decrease the time people have to wait in court to be heard. That’s not the case with magistrate court, he said.
At the June 24 governing body meeting, Lauer said the higher rate of dismissals in magistrate court was due to miscommunication and officers not being in the right place at the right time.
When the Observer emailed Rio Rancho Police Department spokesmen, requesting comment from department management, city spokeswoman Annemarie Garcia responded. She said RRPD would follow and uphold the law and file charges in the appropriate court.
Cook said most cases filed in municipal court belong there. He doesn’t believe the repeals, with the exception of assault on a peace officer, benefit the city.
“It sure feels like we’re fixing something that isn’t broken,” he said.
More repeals pending
The city isn’t done with repeals, although the email from Lauer and Tyler said there is no exact number of ordinances they plan to remove.
“City staff will continue working with Judge Cook to determine the next list of appropriate repeals,” it said. “Any ordinance that takes a full misdemeanor or felony under state law and makes it a petty misdemeanor under city ordinance is subject to review and repeal.”