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Court monitoring project reveals troubling numbers in DWI cases

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Majority of McKinley County cases were dismissed

A recent report illustrates the many DWI arrests each week in McKinley County. Sometimes these DWIs result in tragedies. One crash in particular, on May 14, resulted in two fatalities.  Alcohol is believed to have been a contributing factor in this case.

This recent report, the New Mexico DWI Court Monitoring Project, produced by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the New Mexico Department of Transportation, shows in numbers and graphs how serious the problem has become in several New Mexico counties, McKinley in particular.

For starters, drivers who operate a vehicle under the influence or while intoxicated in McKinley County appear to have roughly a 66 percent chance of having their cases dismissed by the court.

Between July 2017 and July 2018, 365 cases were monitored. Of that number 216 were dismissed and 25 received deferred prosecution.

 

What is the reason for this?

Maura Schanefelt, DWI program manager for McKinley County, said some of the results appear worrisome. But, she added, it is also important to consider the methods at play.

“The MADD report does state it’s not a statistical analysis,” she said in a May 21 phone call. “The report should be taken as an observation.”

The reasons listed in the report for case dismissal include statute and procedural issues, initial DWI investigation issues, plea deals, and defendants who were found to be either incompetent or deceased.

However, the two largest factors for cases being dismissed were issues with evidence, and cases ending with hold open agreements, an arrangement where the defendant has an option to complete a victim impact panel, community service, and DWI school. Under that agreement, defendants can get their cases dismissed.

Eighty-eight cases were dismissed due to evidentiary issues such as insufficient evidence, suppression or exclusion of testimony, or a lack of completed pre-trial interviews.

However, Schanefelt added that lowering the number of cases dismissed by the courts will be difficult because of the number of factors in play, including the judges, prosecutors, and public defenders, law enforcement agencies, and any jurisdictional issues.

The Sun attempted to reach out to elected District Attorney Paula Pakkala to ask about the removal of hold over agreements, which the Sun discussed with her in December 2017, but phone calls were not returned as of press time.

 

IS THE HOLD OPEN AGREEMENT JUST A SLAP ON THE WRIST?

One of the biggest contributors to cases being dismissed is the aforementioned hold open agreements.

Lindsey Valdez, program director for MADD New Mexico said that while some DWI convicts could fulfill the terms of the hold open agreements, it is important they are then monitored through devices like vehicle ignition interlocks, essentially breathalyzers for their vehicles.

“If someone is convicted of DWI, it’s important they have [a vehicle ignition interlock],” she said.

Despite the intent of hold open agreements from the county courts, the program has some naysayers.

Ray Calderon, a member of the DWI Planning Council, spoke May 22 about how he feels about these agreements.

“With this agreement, there is no conviction on [the driver’s] record,” he said. “It’s like a do-over.”

Calderon said it is important to note that only McKinley County lists the hold open agreements on the MADD report, while other counties keep the cases open until they can settle the matter in court.

“What’s showing here is in McKinley County, you have a chance of just walking away from [the DWI],” he said.

The process of hold open agreements has led to cases being dismissed, and then the perpetrator being arrested a short time later for another DWI conviction, Calderon said.

“If perpetrators had to pay bigger fines, [and were assigned] more community service, and were more rigorously managed, they would have thought more about not drinking and driving,” he added.

Despite his criticisms, Calderon also wanted to stress that he does not mean to attack the prosecutors, public defenders, or any elected official by speaking about the agreements, but that he wants what he views as a potential loophole to be covered.

“They’re doing a thankless job up there, but they’ve got to stop this,” he said.

 

GATHERING THE INFO

Since its inception in July 2016, DWI cases in six New Mexico counties were monitored by MADD. MADD representatives are physically present during DWI court proceedings. They observe the processes and case outcomes.

Valdez said court monitors get as much information as possible during proceedings in order to present an in-depth view of those cases.

“It depends on each county and the district attorney,” she said in a May 21 phone call. “Some [county databases] are more accessible than others.

“If we can’t glean the information from [county] resources, it will go under the umbrella of insufficient evidence,” she added.

Regarding the number of cases being dismissed due to uncompleted pre-trial interviews, the report said the officers in question are either unable to attend the interviews, or respond to requests to schedule them.

 

LEARNING MORE

Meanwhile, Schanefelt said the high case dismissal rate may be disturbing to the public. However, she added that readers are encouraged to learn what the context and full meaning of the report is before they begin reacting to it.

“We want to let the community know about the report,” Schanefelt said. “Come and ask questions. Talk to us and learn more about the report.”

Readers are encouraged to visit the DWI Program office at 2105 Hasler Valley Road to learn more about the program and get details about the MADD report.

The next DWI Planning Council open meeting is slated for July 11.

As for Michael Baca, and the May 14 crash, Gallup Police say charges are expected to be filed.

For more information about the McKinley County DWI Program, visit https://www.co.mckinley.nm.us/156/DWI-Program or call 505-726-8249.

By Cody Begaye
Sun Correspondent

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