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Silver City-area DA charged in connection with 2016 traffic stop

June 9, 2017 GMT

The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office on Thursday charged District Attorney Francesca Estevez of Silver City with five misdemeanor counts — three of which accuse her of violating ethical principles as a public official in connection with a traffic stop last June in which police officers thought Estevez was drunk but didn’t test her for alcohol.

Estevez, 62, a Democrat whose district includes Grant, Luna and Hidalgo counties, has been under scrutiny since Silver City police confronted her after a witness reported she was swerving and speeding in her state vehicle, a dark blue Dodge Charger.

The criminal complaint filed Thursday by Special Agent Christopher Kohler includes new details of the controversial incident and subsequent actions by Estevez that some see as attempts to intimidate. The complaint represents a rare case in which the state’s top law enforcement office finds itself accusing the head of another prosecuting agency of abusing her position.

In addition to the allegations that she violated ethical principals of public service, Estevez is charged with reckless driving and engaging in prohibited political activities. If convicted, she could face jail time and/or fines.

“The Office of the Attorney General can confirm that we have filed charges against Francesca Estevez,” spokesman Matt Baca said. “At this time we cannot comment beyond the criminal complaint that was filed with the Sixth Judicial District Court.”

Estevez, through an office staffer, referred questions to her lawyer, Jim Foy. Foy said he had not yet had a chance to read the criminal complaint so he couldn’t comment on the charges. But he said Estevez will not resign because of the charges. “We intend to defend this vigorously.” he said.

State Democratic Party Chairman Richard Ellenberg of Santa Fe said Estevez should step down “if the charges are true.” Ellenberg said he hasn’t heard Estevez’s side of the story, but said, “Everything I’ve read about this case indicates she acted inappropriately.”

According to the criminal complaint, police were alerted to the Dodge Charger on the afternoon of June 11, 2016, by a man who said he witnessed the car speeding and being driven recklessly outside of Silver City. The man said that the car at one point appeared to be traveling more than 100 mph. The man took video of the car that showed it weaving into the highway’s oncoming lane at various times, leading the witness to suspect that the driver was drunk.

The video shows the Charger at times drive on the shoulder of the road and cross the yellow center line about 10 times, the complaint says.

The man called police a second time to inform authorities that the Charger had stopped at an office in Silver City. When police arrived, they found the district attorney dressed in a muumuu-style dress. She told police she was delivering soup to a sick friend. Estevez “exclaimed” that she had a flat tire and told officers she had been driving 70 mph “as part an of an effort to establish whether her tire was flat.”

When Silver City Officer Kyle Spurgeon approached her, Estevez told him that she knew him from an episode of bigotry when he was in high school, claiming he had bullied a Jewish girl. Spurgeon told Estevez she had mistaken him for another young man, naming the person involved in that case.

Estevez told the officers that she would hate to see the U.S. Justice Department take over the Silver City Police Department because of officers’ failings. And, Kohler wrote, Estevez brought up the fact that earlier in the year she had publicly announced that between 2011 and 2015 the Region VII Drug Task Force, which includes Silver City police, mishandled many pieces of evidence, including bundles of marijuana, weapons and other items.

“Ms. Estevez began this conversation abruptly and seemingly from out of the blue,” Kohler wrote. “… Ms. Estevez initiated this conversation inappropriately, on the side of the road during an official law enforcement encounter. …” At least one officer said this was intimidating.

‘Throughout Ms. Estevez’ contact with the officers her gestures and mannerisms often appeared exaggerated,” Kohler wrote in the complaint. “She often appeared confused or unable to complete tasks such as manipulating or locating a number in her phone. She made comments which were not necessarily appropriate to the situation and she conducted herself in an unusual manner. She was often repetitive, her speech was sometimes drawn out or “sing song,” and her physical movements sometimes gave her the appearance of being unstable. She appeared to fall at least twice while attempting to sit in her vehicle and was observed sometimes swaying backward and then forward or to the sides repeatedly.”

Kohler also wrote that Estevez gave conflicting stories about where she had been that day.

Spurgeon later said to other officers at the scene, “She’s loaded.” However, no officer tested Estevez for alcohol.

After the incident, Kohler wrote, Estevez made at least two phone calls to Officer Leticia Lopez, the first officer who had approached her on June 11. In the first call, on the night of the incident, Estevez called to “thank” Lopez. Several days later, Lopez got another call from Estevez, who was “irate” because someone had told a deputy district attorney that Estevez had been intoxicated on the day of the incident. Lopez told Kohler she felt “freaked out” by the call, which she interpreted as an attempt to intimidate.

In the days after the incident, Estevez also approached a Silver City police corporal and again accused Spurgeon of being a racist. Not only had he threatened a Jewish girl in high school, Estevez claimed, Spurgeon also had threatened Estevez’s daughter and her husband, who is African-American. She claimed the officer had threatened to tie her husband to the back of a truck and drag him behind it. That same day, she told a Silver City Police sergeant that a captain with the county sheriff’s office was investigating Spurgeon for his alleged racism.

These complaints led to an internal investigation in which no one implicated Spurgeon of any wrongdoing or racist behavior.

Spurgeon in April told attorney general investigators that these accusations “put a target” on his back and only worsened relations between police and minorities in Silver City. Kohler wrote that the repeated accusations by Estevez represented an abuse of power.

Following news reports about Estevez’s driving incident, state Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, called for her resignation and asked the attorney general to investigate.

This prompted Estevez to retaliate by contacting the state Probation and Parole Office and inquiring about the employment of Morales’s brother, Eric Morales, as a probation and parole officer. She claimed she had received complaints that Eric Morales was not qualified for the job. Arthur Quintana, the officer who took the call, told her that Eric Morales is qualified. But Estevez demanded a copy of Morales’ résumé — which he declined to supply. Later, after Quintana had been contacted by news reporters, he said Estevez called him again to berate him, even though he had given no comment to reporters.

Kohler said this was a violation of the government ethics laws by Estevez, who was re-elected to a new four-year term in November.

Asked for comment Thursday about the charges against Estevez, Sen. Morales said, “This just shows that nobody is above the law and all public officials need to be held accountable.”

Kohler said that records pertaining to Estevez’s Charger, including mileage logs for the time of the incident, were missing from the District Attorney’s Office in Silver City.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexica­n.com.