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Attorney General sues Las Cruces judge over sexual assault sentence


The New Mexico Department of Justice announced a lawsuit against District Judge Douglas Driggers after accusing him of violating a state law that protects victim’s rights during a news conference in Las Cruces on May 10. 

Driggers, a judge in the 3rd Judicial District since 2003, was accused of violating legal mandates when he ended Patrick Howard’s probation two years early and ignoring the provisions in the Victim’s Rights Act that entitled crime victims to be notified of hearings. The 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office also filed a motion calling on Driggers to reconsider the decision, which was made in March.

“The New Mexico Department of Justice has taken this action not only because we believe the judge acted improperly and in violation of the law, but more importantly, because of the way that the process unfolded,” said Attorney General Raúl Torrez. 

Torrez filed a writ of prohibition and superintending control calling on the state Supreme Court to intervene and enforce the remaining two years of the sentence. 

The AG’s lawsuit stems from Howard’s 2018 conviction in which the former Las Cruces High School agriculture teacher pleaded guilty to molesting a 15-year-old girl. Howard was charged with three counts of criminal sexual contact of a minor. 

The girl, who was not identified in court records, was Howard’s student. She said Howard took to slapping her butt, even in front of her peers, and sending her unwanted texts. Other girls at LCHS reported similar treatment from Howard. 

Howard agreed to plead guilty to one count of criminal sexual contact of a minor and misdemeanor battery. Driggers sentenced him to five years of probation and said Howard did not have to register as a sex offender. Driggers then cut the sentence short by two years in 2021. 

A news release from the state Department of Justice characterized the hearing as taking place “in very short order” and said the girls Howard assaulted were not notified of the hearing, in March of this year, on a motion to terminate Howard’s probation. 

"I felt that it was a slap on the hand,” one girl’s father told KOAT. 

Howard also settled a $44 million lawsuit in federal court with one of the girl’s families. 

One of the girls, now an adult and a student in the Pacific Northwest, also submitted a statement during the news conference, which her attorney, Shannon Kennedy, read. It acknowledged a previous statement by District Attorney Gerald Byers in which he took responsibility for his office not informing victims of the hearing on Howard’s sentence. However, the writ states that the court filed a notice of the probation hearing only two days in advance and argued that left insufficient time to notify the victims.

“District Attorney Byers, thank you for apologizing and for taking accountability for the situation at hand. We have not had a whole lot of that in the past seven and a half years. I'd like to keep it simple because, honestly, I'm still at a loss for words,” the statement said. 

The statement went on to call for the Victim’s Rights Act to be taken more seriously, a point that Torrez also made. 

"This is one of the few areas of law where there are rights but no remedies," Torrez said. 

Next, the state Supreme Court will consider hearing the case. It’s unclear when that will occur. 

New Mexico Attorney General, Raul Torrez, Judge Douglas Driggers, 3rd Judicial District