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Santa Fe County aims to boost DWI convictions

March 20, 2018 GMT

Conviction rates for drunken-driving cases in Santa Fe County, in both Magistrate Court and District Court, remained among the lowest in the state in 2016, according to the most recent public analysis — a problem District Attorney Marco Serna attributes to a combination of issues: missteps by his office in issuing subpoenas, arresting officers failing to show up for court hearings and plea deals allowing offenders to face lesser charges.

But Serna, who took office at the start of 2017, says he has put a sharp focus on DWI prosecutions in the past year, and he believes the local conviction rates will begin to rise.

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“I knew coming in that I wanted to address that, especially because DWIs are just so prevalent in New Mexico as a whole,” Serna said. “That was one of the issues I wanted to take care of or, at the very least, ensure our conviction rates were higher.”

Santa Fe County historically has had lower DWI conviction rates than the statewide average. According to the latest in an annual series of DWI disposition reports compiled by the state’s judicial system, those rates fell to a five-year low in 2016.

For Santa Fe County cases heard in the First Judicial District Court, the conviction rate was 67.2 percent, the report says, below the statewide District Court average of 74.4 percent. That was the eighth lowest rate of convictions for any county in the state. However, tiny Harding County in northeastern New Mexico, with only about 700 residents, was not included in that count.

The Magistrate Court convictions for Santa Fe County were the third lowest out of 32 counties in New Mexico — excluding the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court — at 54 percent, compared with a rate of 68 percent statewide.

The report does not include convictions in the Santa Fe Municipal Court, which also handles DWI cases. City prosecutor Chad Chittum estimates that court’s DWI conviction rate is between 75 percent and 80 percent.

Linda Atkinson, executive director of the Albuquerque-based DWI Resource Center, said the effect of this low conviction rate is “huge on the safety of citizens that live and drive in Santa Fe County.”

In a broader context, the rates of DWI convictions have been sliding statewide over the past two decades. According to the state DWI report, the average rates for magistrate and district courtrooms across New Mexico are down about 10 percentage points from where they were in 1997.

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Atkinson has an argument for increasing those rates: “The benefits of having somebody stopped, arrested and prosecuted, with a meaningful sanction,” she said, is that “you start seeing reductions in death and injury.”

Santa Fe County Magistrate David Segura said he is not particularly concerned about conviction rates — and he doesn’t think any judge should be.

“It is not the court’s obligation to ensure or increase convictions or acquittals,” Segura said. “The court is a place where the state has the opportunity to present its case, and the defense has that opportunity as well.”

But Serna, tasked with prosecuting District Court cases in Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Rio Arriba counties, said he has been addressing weaknesses in the system that lead to unsuccessful prosecutions, like officers not showing up for hearings.

Serna doesn’t put the blame solely on officers. In some instances, he said, the problem was that the District Attorney’s Office had not issued subpoenas properly.

In addition, he said, he stopped allowing plea deals that would allow someone charged with a felony DWI to face a far lesser charge, and he is trying to beef up training for newer prosecutors in the Magistrate Court.

Serna has asked his office to compile its own DWI statistics so he can track the data more closely.

His data actually show slightly higher numbers for Santa Fe County Magistrate Court cases than those reflected in the state report.

By his tally, the misdemeanor conviction rate of DWIs in the county in 2016 was 62 percent, Serna said, an increase from the 2015 rate of 59 percent.

As more current data is analyzed, Serna said, he expects to see the conviction rates start to inch up. “I’m hoping that they’re going to get steadily better.”

His predecessor, Angela “Spence” Pacheco, told The New Mexican in 2015 that one problem she faced in prosecuting DWI cases was a lack of training among some young patrol officers on how to properly conduct DWI traffic stops.

Capt. Mark Lewandowski, who oversees the DWI unit for the Santa Fe Police Department, said such cases are complicated.

The process of conducting a traffic stop with sobriety testing, completing jail bookings and filling out paperwork can take anywhere from two to six hours or more, he said. An arresting officer can expect to attend at least three hearings in a DWI case, including forfeiture proceedings, taxation and revenue hearings, and criminal case proceedings, which could require multiple hearings.

If a patrol officer suspects he or she is dealing with a drunken driver, they can request that a specialized DWI officer handle the case. All patrol officers complete required DWI training every other year, Lewandowski said, with refresher training in between and monthly opportunities for officers to brush up on their knowledge.

“I think we’ve really developed and improved our training when it came to DWI,” Lewandowski said. “That’s also why we’re seeing the success we’re seeing in municipal court.”

At the Santa Fe department, Lewandowski said, there is a strict emphasis on officers showing up to court proceedings. Officers who don’t attend hearings typically face an internal investigation, he said, and disciplinary actions can be as severe as a suspension from duty.

Lupe Sanchez, coordinator of the Santa Fe County DWI Program, which works with local law enforcement and other groups to reduce drunken driving, said his program will be able to allocate more money in the next fiscal year to agencies in the area, following restoration of some program funding from the state that had been cut by the Legislature in 2017.

Some of the funds restored in fiscal year 2018 will pay for a DWI-specific deputy at the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, Sanchez said. Another $90,000 is going toward interagency efforts, such as DWI checkpoints and saturation patrols.

The primary goal, Sanchez said, is to keep people safe. It’s also possible that with more boots on the ground and more checkpoints, the number of DWI arrests could increase.

Should DWI arrest rates climb, can area prosecutors keep up with the caseload?

It could be a challenge, Serna said, because his prosecutors already have hundreds of cases on their dockets.

But, he said, he’ll do what he has to.

“If we start seeing a significant increase in DWI arrests, we’re definitely going to shift our resources to make sure we can handle the caseload,” Serna said.

“That’s the last thing you want is for these cases to get dismissed because our attorneys are overworked.”

Contact Sami Edge at 505-986-3055 or sedge@sfnewmexican.com.

Santa Fe County DWI conviction rates

Magistrate Court

2012: 55.4%

2013: 56.6%

2014: 63.4%

2015: 57.3%

2016: 54%

District Court

2012: 75.3%

2013: 82.4%

2014: 69.1%

2015: 77.9%

2016: 67.2%

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