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Sixth Amendment can’t be ignored


The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a “speedy and public trial.” The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 passed by Congress interprets that to mean an indictment within 30 days of arrest and a trial within 70 days of the indictment.

But that only applies to federal courts. In New Mexico, a backlog in the district courts has meant far too many defendants have been denied their Sixth Amendment right. The problem has been greatest in Albuquerque, leading the state legislature to pass the Bernalillo Criminal Justice and Review Act in 2013.

That bill led to the creation of the Case Management Pilot Program For Criminal Cases, which imposed deadlines similar to the federal law. The new law led to a 250 percent increase in the number of trials conducted, according to a 2017 report by the Legislature. But, it also resulted in far too many cases being dismissed, the report said.

Ultimately, the new law resulted in a 40 percent reduction in trials for both property and violent crimes from 2014 to 2016, which helped spark Albuquerque’s sharp increase in crime.

What started as a pilot program has grown to include other districts. And recently, the Third Judicial District in Las Cruces was the latest to fall under a Case Management Order from the state Supreme Court. That will mean new deadlines for trials in our local district court.

It will also mean as many as 500 cases being dismissed, Third Judicial District Attorney Gerald Byers has told local media. One case charging involuntary manslaughter for a woman’s death has already been dismissed, he said.

If his number is accurate, it’s a sad indictment on Byers and the ability of his office to efficiently bring cases to trial.

According to one report, more than a dozen defendants have been in jail for longer than a year waiting for their cases to get to trial. Four of them spent more than 1,000 days in jail before getting their day in court. That’s not acceptable.

It’s important to note that cases dismissed now can be filed again later. And, Byers has vowed to do just that in the involuntary manslaughter case mentioned above.

There’s no doubt this process is going to be messy, and will likely result in some criminals being able to get away with their crimes, at least temporarily. But that kind of shock to the system may be necessary.

The Sixth Amendment doesn’t suggest a speedy trial, it demands one. Holding someone in jail for more than 1,000 days before trial is a clear violation of that person’s constitutional rights.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com