When running to become First Judicial District attorney, I vowed that there would be fewer cases dismissed on procedural technicalities within the district. Nowhere was this more important than in our DWI policy, which I overhauled to ensure we were doing all we could to get dangerous drivers off the streets. This policy was created and applied to guard against misdemeanor DWI defendants who have historically prevailed on procedural technicalities, ultimately resulting in a high dismissal rate and a poor conviction rate.
My office is not only facing the stopwatch of the statute of limitations but also the Santa Fe Court’s application of the 45-day rule. This rule requires my office to have all discovery (the compilation of information before a trial) gathered within 45 days of filing a DWI case, which stands in the way of quality evidence gathering.
I’m left asking, “How?”
How can I change the conviction rate that has become acceptable because it happens year after year? How can I work within the legal authority to improve the result?
My office found the majority of misdemeanor DWI cases brought into Magistrate Court were being dismissed because of procedural technicalities. Historically, DWI cases in this office were being accepted in an “incomplete” fashion on the front-end of prosecution, in hopes all evidence would be turned in shortly after and the case would be prosecuted in a timely manner.
Although a common prosecutorial process, it was proving to be a waste of resources to initiate prosecution on a case that would inevitably be dismissed due to a technicality. This process was directly reflected by the low conviction and high dismissal rates: the Santa Fe DWI dismissal rate in 2019 was 47 percent and 67 percent in 2020. These are not acceptable.
I am unafraid of innovation and strategy — my new policy is aimed directly at reversing the previous policy and procedure when it comes to misdemeanor DWIs. As part of my new DWI policy, effective in October 2020 and in accordance with the law, my office is now voluntarily dismissing misdemeanor DWI cases at the intake level of prosecution, which essentially pauses the case in an open status until all evidence is received, giving cases a greater chance of success through the prosecutorial process.
Following my new DWI policy and procedure, my office currently has 310 DWI cases in “open” status pending refile. Cases are actively being refiled in either Magistrate or District courts. It’s important to note that due to COVID-19, there were major barriers to bringing cases forward to trial, so my office is also working through the backlog of 2019 and 2020 DWI cases.
Prosecution is a fluid process; it does not start and stop on a calendar or fiscal date. Although my policy goes against the norm, it is a proactive policy put in place to hold offenders, who continually jeopardize our roadways, accountable. Past procedures have created an environment of lawlessness regarding DWIs by allowing the idea that it is routinely acceptable for misdemeanor DWIs to be dismissed on a technicality.
I am, rightly, going to be held accountable for the outcome and subject to the criticism of the conviction rates, and this policy allows me to work proactively within the law to control the viability of cases and create a greater likelihood that these cases will be heard on their merits. I am proud to use legal authority and guiding policy to improve the outcomes of misdemeanor DWIs in Santa Fe. Working together, we will make our roads safer for all of us.
Mary Carmack-Altwies is the district attorney for New Mexico's First Judicial District. She took office Jan. 1.