Aztec community members protest constitutional amendment
Stop Catch and Release rally was held near Aztec courthouse
- Some residents believe a recent constitutional amendment has led to a decline in public safety.
- Some believe the old "money for freedom" system was unfair and unsafe for the community.
- The death of William Wilson in an officer-involved shooting was cited as one reason to hold the event.
AZTEC — A group of nearly 35 people crowded along West Aztec Boulevard this morning, waving signs arguing to stop the "catch and release" of repeat offenders they believe is due to a recently adopted constitutional amendment that drew more than 87 percent approval from state voters.
The Stop Catch and Release Rally organized by Diane Hathcock and Betty Romero started at 7 a.m. today, with attendees standing on the southwest corner of the intersection of West Aztec Boulevard and South Oliver Avenue in Aztec.
Lawmakers, law enforcement officials and residents who attended the event believe the constitutional amendment and subsequent court rules introduced by the New Mexico Supreme Court to enforce the amendment have led to a decline in public safety, putting residents in danger.
"It's clear that the way things are, it's creating danger to law enforcement and our community and the suspects we have to deal with," Bloomfield Police Chief Randy Foster told The Daily Times.
Artie Pepin, director of the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, said in a statement the complaints about “the new rules” fail to point to any specific new provisions that create any danger to the public. He argued none of the changes created any public danger.
"The new rules provided for both denial of release for dangerous defendants and strengthened procedures for the modification or outright revocation of release if a released defendant commits new crimes while released or otherwise," Pepin said.
Organizers of the event cited the death of William Wilson as one of the reasons to hold the event, along with supporting local law enforcement.
Wilson was killed on Aug. 27 during a traffic stop at Citizens Bank at 4220 Hudson St. in Farmington by gunshots fired by a New Mexico State Police officer and a deputy for the San Juan County Sheriff's Office.
The 2016 constitutional amendment that was on the Nov. 8 general election ballot allows judges to detain without bond defendants who are considered dangerous to the public.
It also granted judges the ability to grant pretrial release to defendants who are deemed to pose no flight risk or risk to the community.
Countywide, more than 85 percent of residents who voted on the amendment were in favor of it, and more than 87 percent of New Mexico residents who voted on the amendment were in favor of it, according to the New Mexico Secretary of State's Office website.
Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, spoke at the event, along with San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen and Undersheriff Shane Ferrari. State Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, also appeared at the event.
Sharer said he believes the amendment and rules allow all defendants, including repeat offenders, to be released from custody pending a trial.
The amendment allows defendants who are not deemed to be a flight risk or pose a danger and have an inability to post a bond to file a motion requesting relief from posting a bond for pretrial release.
The prosecution can also file a motion to hold a defendant without bond, setting up a hearing regarding the motion.
Sharer voted against the amendment and was one of nine members who voted against the resolution when it came up for a vote in the Senate.
"I believe the Supreme Court of New Mexico can fix this and should fix this today, right now," Sharer said to the crowd.
He also said state Supreme Court Justice Charlie Daniels should resign from his position because Daniels actively lobbied for the amendment and showed bias by lobbying for a policy change.
In response, Pepin said the state Code of Judicial Conduct allows judges to speak up and support legal reforms related to the legal system or the administration of justice.
"If anyone believes any judge has acted unethically, the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission was created by voters to determine the merits, or lack of merits, of those complaints. It is inappropriate to litigate them through press releases," Pepin said in a statement.
Christesen said he believes the language on the ballot for the amendment was deceptive and has had a negative effect on public safety.
"What this does is increase the crime rate by letting addicts and criminals out to commit crimes over and over again at the risk of hurting you, the public," Christesen said to the crowd.
Some believe the old "money for freedom" system was unfair and unsafe for the community because it could allow anyone with enough money to post a bond to be released from jail.
Sarah Field, a local public defender and a regional director for the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, believes there is a lack of education around the amendment because she said it does give judges a way to keep the community safe.
She said under the terms of the former system, anyone with enough money could possibly bond out of pretrial detention. She said that system penalized people who struggled financially to post their bond.
"If you have no money, you could be held in jail for months on a misdemeanor charge where you wouldn't be sentenced to jail time," Field said.
Kirtland resident Don Harrington attended the event to support law enforcement and stop the "catch and release" of criminals. He said he voted against the amendment.
"Everybody deserves a second chance, but some people don't deserve to be walking around until they pay their dues," Harrington said.
Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.
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