Former Gov. Bill Richardson pleaded no contest on Friday to one count in a hit-and-run case.
But unlike the typical defendant in Santa Fe Municipal Court, Richardson was allowed to phone in his plea, and his reason and whereabouts — likely the mountain hamlet of Red River — were kept secret, sealed in the court record for 30 days by a judge’s order.
Richardson agreed to complete a defensive driving course, pay $56 in court costs and write a letter of apology to the other driver.
As part of his plea agreement, the two-term Democratic governor and one-time presidential candidate pleaded no contest to failing to give immediate notice of an accident. Attorneys for the city of Santa Fe dropped a separate charge that Richardson followed the vehicle he hit too closely.
The charge is decidedly minor, carrying a maximum fine of $300 fine. But the case, featuring a prominent politician, nonetheless provided evidence of how differently low-level courts handle public figures. After Richardson entered his plea by telephone, his attorney succeeded in keeping sealed the motion in which the former governor was absolved from having to appear in person.
Santa Fe police cited Richardson on Jan. 6, accusing him of leaving the scene after rear-ending a car at Paseo de Peralta and Marcy Street. No one was injured.
According to a police report, the driver of an Acura told officers she stopped at the four-way stop about 8 a.m. when the former governor drove into her vehicle from behind. The woman told police Richardson’s 2004 Jeep hit her a second time “hard enough” that it “pushed her into the intersection,” the report says.
The woman turned onto Marcy Street to get out of the intersection and saw Richardson’s yellow Jeep continue north on Paseo de Peralta, according to the report.
“Did I hit somebody?” Richardson later asked when interviewed by police, the incident report says. “It popped a little bit, but I think it was like a little hit.”
City prosecutor Chad Chittum said Richardson caused more than $500 in damage to the Acura.
Outlining the plea agreement in court Friday, Chittum described it as standard and appropriate for a first-time offender.
The other driver did not appear at the hearing but Chittum said she was aware of the agreement.
“She wanted Mr. Richardson treated just like everyone,” he said.
Pfeffer cautioned against disparate treatment, too, saying a softer standard for a former governor would diminish “respect to the law.”
“To me, it’s important Mr. Richardson take responsibility and own up to this,” the judge said.
Addressing the court after a brief conference with his attorney on another phone line, Richardson apologized.
“I failed to notice her vehicle suffered damage,” he said of the other driver. Then Richardson agreed to complete a defensive-driving class within the next 30 days “to be the safest driver I can be.”
For a traffic case, the ordeal was heavy with legal maneuvering.
Pfeffer, a retired state District Court judge, took over the case after Santa Fe Municipal Judge Virginia Vigil recused herself earlier this month.
Vigil, who assumed office after the case was filed, said she withdrew because she had lobbied Richardson for capital construction money in her previous role as a Santa Fe County commissioner.
Though Pfeffer emphasized equal treatment of the former governor, he agreed to seal a motion by Richardson’s attorney requesting that the judge allow Richardson to participate in the hearing via telephone.
Richardson’s lawyer, Megan Dorsey, actually submitted a total of three motions. The first two said Richardson had “previously scheduled employment obligations that require his presence in Red River, New Mexico,” a resort town two hours north of Santa Fe.
The motions said attending court in person would be an “undo hardship” on the former governor.
Pfeffer denied the motions, telling Richardson to provide details about previously scheduled activities that would preclude his appearance in court.
But the judge granted a third motion and agreed to seal the document for 30 days. Chittum did not oppose the motion.
While such motions are typically public, the rules of procedure for municipal court provide for sealing certain records.
Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said sealed documents usually concern medical information, confidential law enforcement sources or other matters of public safety.
“It’s always troubling when we suspect public figures are given special treatment in a court of law,” Boe said. “There could be a perfectly valid reason, but we’re going to be real interested in 30 days what gave rise to the sealing of the record.”