The Evolving Effects of COVID-19 on Criminal Justice in New Mexico

Changes have been made across the world, the country and across the state because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Changes have also come to New Mexico’s State Court System. To comply with the evolving public health emergency and ensure that courts remain open to provide essential services and maintain the rule of law in a safe environment for all New Mexicans, attorneys for both sides can appear via audio-visual means or telephonically for most hearings.

Because the virus is so contagious and potentially life-threatening, courthouses like other public places are relatively empty.  Most appearances and hearings, though in substance they’re the same, take place remotely, often via audio-visual attendance or on the telephone. This is for everyone’s safety because it’s difficult, if not impossible, as a practical matter, to be socially distant from others while representing clients as well as going in and out of courthouses.

The New Mexico Supreme Court on March 17 suspended all criminal trials until April 30, subject to the discretion of individual judges. Six days later the court issued an order stating:

  • Judges are required to use telephonic or audio-visual attendance for court appearances by attorneys, litigants, witnesses, and the press unless there is an emergency need for an in-person appearance.
  • A party may seek an in-person appearance when necessary, and a judge can order one on his or her initiative but not without discussing it with the parties and the district’s chief judge
  • Any criminal procedure rules requiring the defendant’s presence can be met through remote, audio-visual appearance, as long as the defendant and defense counsel can still communicate without others hearing them
  • All gatherings of individuals in a single, connected location within a courthouse or other building are limited to no more than (15) people.

Mary Marlowe Sommer, Chief Judge, First Judicial District, issued a long list of rules for criminal matters on March 16.   Most matters can be done through telephone calls. These rules state:

  • There are no pretrial conferences. They will stay on the docket, and attorneys for both sides will need to meet and discuss issues. A Certificate of Compliance will still need to be filed.
  • Attorneys can appear by phone for status conferences, presentment hearings, probation violation arraignments, probation status conferences, arraignments, docket calls, and release hearings
  • Counsel and defendants must be present for evidentiary hearings. Others involved also need to appear unless a telephone appearance was agreed to

Though the importance of most hearings and conferences can vary from case to case, it’s the evidentiary hearings that need to be taken most seriously.  It is my opinion that there is no way to be an effective advocate while appearing through audio-visual or telephonic means.  You literally cannot effectively present evidence/testimony or cross examine an opposing witness through the telephone or by video conferencing.

Also restricted, isn’t just what’s going on inside the courthouse, but who can get into it.   The Chief Judge of the Fourth Judicial District, Judge Gerald E. Baca issued barring entry to anyone who comes to a courthouse with the symptoms of a COVID-19 infection (fever, cough, shortness of breath) that developed in the previous two weeks, unless they are at the courthouse with an urgent matter. Also barred are those who travelled to areas with high risks of infection or who were diagnosed with, or had close contact with, someone diagnosed with an infection.

Changes have also come to our office. It’s currently closed to walk through traffic for the safety of our potential clients, clients, employees and the community.  We continue to work, using the latest technology to communicate with clients and others.

These changes are temporary and shouldn’t cause problems in most cases. No matter how I talk to clients, judges or others, in person or on the phone, my clients are always my top priority. COVID-19 or not, I will fiercely defend the rights and interests of my clients. Like every other aspect of life, the practice of law has been deeply impacted by COVID-19.  What will NOT change is our commitment and dedication to our clients.

If you are under investigation by law enforcement, charged with a criminal charge or are under arrest, as a former New Mexico prosecutor, I have the knowledge, insight, and confidence you need to feel like you are leveraging the power of a strategic criminal defense attorney. You can reach out to my office today for a strategy session. I will make sure you understand the charge(s), potential penalties, your rights, conduct an initial assessment of your case, and tell you how we can help you. Request yours today by calling (505) 587-8649. Or you can complete my convenient and secure contact form.

Posted in Criminal Defense

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