SANTA FE — New Mexico's highest court ruled Thursday that a San Juan County district judge mishandled a drunken driving case in which a man eventually was convicted.
In a 5-0 decision, the state Supreme Court found that District Judge Karen Townsend should have considered whether to dismiss the case, as a Farmington municipal judge already had done.
Instead, Townsend simply ordered defendant Juan Piñon-Garcia to stand trial in her court, where he was convicted.
Piñon-Garcia appealed to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, which decided that Townsend had erred. The Supreme Court affirmed that ruling.
The case against Piñon-Garcia began in January 2009, when Farmington police officer Virgil Todacheeney arrested him on suspicion of drunken driving and two traffic offenses.
Piñon-Garcia was to stand trial in Farmington municipal court, but Todacheeney -- the only witness against him -- failed to show up.
Because there was no prosecution witness, the municipal judge granted a defense motion to dismiss all three charges against Piñon-Garcia. Todacheeney had administered the breath test to Piñon-Garcia and was the only person who had seen him driving.
The city appealed the dismissal of the drunken driving charge to district court, saying Piñon-Garcia should be tried on that charge.
Townsend said it was undisputed that the police officer had failed to appear for the scheduled trial. But she declined to consider whether to dismiss the case.
She said the state constitution precluded her from reviewing the municipal court order for an abuse of discretion.
Piñon-Garcia then stood trial in district court. This time, Todacheeney testified for the prosecution, and Piñon-Garcia was convicted.
Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Edward L. Chavez said Townsend should have considered Piñon-Garcia's motion to dismiss the case.
Chavez said this is a necessary safeguard in the legal system so that rules such as those on speedy trials and double jeopardy are not violated.
The Supreme Court sent Piñon-Garcia's case back to the district court for an independent determination on his motion for dismissal. He was convicted of a first offense of non-aggravated drunken driving.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe Bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.