New Mexico DA announces new policy on aggravated fleeing cases

"Maybe some people will think twice before running from law enforcement at all if they know they will be held accountable," Sheriff Adan Mendoza said


By Phaedra Haywood
The Santa Fe New Mexican
        
SANTA FE, N.M. — Defendants charged with aggravated fleeing — including those accused of leading police on high-speed chases — will be subject to a hardline policy that no longer allows them to enter into plea agreements ending in a probation sentence, First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said Monday.

In addition, the District Attorney's Office will begin filing motions seeking to hold anyone accused of aggravated fleeing in jail until trial.

"The new policy was based on the most recent incidents in Santa Fe and in seeing how dangerous that charge can be," Carmack-Altwies said in an interview. "I want to send a message to the community that we are trying to keep our streets safe."

Law enforcement gathers along Interstate 25 as several agencies take part in a search for a suspect who was involved in a high speed pursuit that resulted in a Santa Fe Police Officer being killed, Wednesday March 2, 2022.
Law enforcement gathers along Interstate 25 as several agencies take part in a search for a suspect who was involved in a high speed pursuit that resulted in a Santa Fe Police Officer being killed, Wednesday March 2, 2022. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

The announcement of the new policy came on the same day state District Judge T. Glenn Ellington ordered Nathaniel Bueno-Diaz held without bond until trial Monday, siding with a state prosecutor who argued Bueno-Diaz was too dangerous to be allowed out of custody while his case is pending.

Bueno-Diaz, 22, is accused of forcing a woman — later determined to be his girlfriend — into his vehicle at a shopping center last week and leading police on a high-speed chase during which he drove the wrong way on Interstate 25 before officers were able to bring his vehicle to a stop.

The incident came less than three weeks after Jeannine Jaramillo was accused of leading police on another chase on the wrong side of the freeway, ending in a collision that killed Santa Fe Police Department Officer Robert Duran and retired firefighter Frank Lovato of Las Vegas, N.M.

[MORE: Woman arrested in crash that killed 2, including N.M. police officer]

No one was seriously injured during the incident involving Bueno-Diaz, but Ellington noted the suspect has a history of failing to appear in court and has previously been found dangerous in a 2019 case in which he was also accused of aggravated fleeing.

"He basically has never followed conditions of release set by the court," Ellington said.

The First Judicial District Attorney's Office saw an approximately 29 percent increase in aggravated fleeing cases between 2020 and 2021, according to data provided by Carmack-Altwies. The office handled 107 cases in which the charge was an element in 2020 and 138 cases in which it was a factor in 2021. Santa Fe police said last week the department had been involved in seven high-speed chases in the first quarter of this year, and only five during the same time period a year ago.

Carmack-Altwies said the difference between the charge of resisting, evading or obstructing an officer — which is a misdemeanor — and aggravated fleeing — a fourth-degree felony — is the danger the fleeing causes to others.

For example, a motorist who simply failed to pull over in response to an officer's signal that they do so but continued driving the speed limit and obeying all other traffic laws would be charged with the lesser crime.

Someone who drove the wrong way, ran traffic lights, drove on the sidewalk or broke the speed limit while attempting to get away would face the more serious charge.

Bueno-Diaz will be subject to the new policy, Carmack-Altwies said.

Local law enforcement officials on Monday said they supported the policy change.

Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza called it a "good start," later adding, "maybe some people will think twice before running from law enforcement at all if they know they will be held accountable."

Santa Fe police Deputy Chief Ben Valdez also praised the move.

"These offenders are a danger to the public, innocent bystanders and first responders and rightfully should remain in custody while awaiting trial," Valdez wrote in an email. "In addition, removing the benefit of offenders to be offered a plea agreement for this offense will be a strong deterrent."

State Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur wrote in an email he's concerned the policy could have unintended consequences.

"I share the District Attorney's concern with the number of incidents in which high-speed chases have endangered lives," he wrote. "However, a blanket directive prevents prosecutors from using their discretion based upon the facts in each individual case. The deterrence value of a directive must be balanced against the number of people — some of whom will be found innocent of the charges — who are not dangers to the community but may be incarcerated for months or years in our understaffed, unhealthy jails and prisons."

The police department's pursuit policy came under renewed scrutiny recently after the March 2 collision that killed Duran and Lovato. Some have questioned whether the department followed its own guidelines, which require officers to weigh the dangers involved in pursuit vs. non-pursuit.

Officials, including Carmack-Altwies, have said the pursuit in the Jaramillo case was justified because officers believed at the time they were chasing a vehicle carrying a kidnapper and a woman he was holding against her will.

But the alleged kidnapping victim emerged from the vehicle alone when the vehicle was incapacitated after sideswiping another motorist, according to police. Jaramillo now is accused of having faked her own kidnapping.
  
(c)2022 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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