Thursday, August 18, 2005

JUDGE GALLEGOS: A BLAST FROM THE PAST

Santa Fe Municipal Judge Fran Gallegos' latest problems with the Judicial Standards Commission made me recall a controversy I wrote about during her first year in office.

Basically her court issued summonses to hundreds of people who had already taken care of traffic tickets, forcing them to go to court a second time and pay additional court and Motor Vehicle Division fees.

Gallegos quietly dropped her pursuit of ancient traffic tickets shortly after my story about it. As you'll read, the city attorney was working on a legal opinion about the matter. I don't remember what that opinion was -- though I've got a pretty good idea what that might have been. I can't find any old story about that opinion.

Although this didn't cause the uproar that Gallegos' subsequent troubles have -- and indeed, it's not as serious as her current charges -- you could argue that it showed a basic lack of knowledge about legal concepts like "double jeopardy" "right to a speedy trial," etc. This early ticket fiasco might be viewed as a precursor to Gallegos' present situation.

Here's the story I wrote way back then:

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Feb. 16, 1997


Because of court glitch, hundreds who thought their tickets were taken care of are receiving summonses

Connie remembers when her 16-year-old son got his first traffic tickets early last year and had to go to Municipal Judge Tom Fiorina's court.

Her son got one ticket for lacking proof of insurance and an other for not having a vehicle registration, violations for which Connie felt she was to blame.

She remembers waiting her turn in court, waiting for arraign ment of new jail inmates and for other cases that came ahead of her son's. Finally, when it was her boy's turn, Connie remembers Fiorina giving her son a mild lecture about taking responsibility to help his mom remember to keep the car's paperwork in order. Then she remembers Fiorina telling her son he would give him a break. As he did for countless others during his 13 years on the bench, Fiorina wrote "dismissed" on the tickets.

And that was that, or so Connie thought.

But in late September of last year, Connie's son received a letter from the state Motor Vehicle Division informing him that his driver's license had been suspended.

He was accused of failing to appear in municipal court. He had been driving on a suspended license for nearly a month with out knowing it.

Connie's son is not alone. He is one of hundreds of Santa Feans who thought they had taken care of their traffic tickets and other misdemeanor violations who are receiving summonses from Municipal Court and notices from the Motor Vehicle Division saying otherwise.

This situation began getting publicity after it happened to a city councilor, Amy Manning, who earlier this month received an order to show cause why she should not be held in contempt of court for allegedly skipping out on a hearing on a 1993 traffic ticket -- something she denies.

Municipal Judge Frances Gallegos, who defeated Fiorina at the polls about two months after Connie's son went to court, says her court computers indicate that some 340,000 citations going back as far as 1988 are "open" cases with no sign that they have ever been resolved.

Every Tuesday the court computer spits out a new pile of summonses to the next batch of people with open cases, Gallegos said. And virtually every day more people come in to endure a second day in court for the same offense they thought they took care of months or years ago.

Gallegos blames the situation on Fiorina, whose problems with record-keeping were well-documented in city audits. Gallegos said the state auditor recently began examining records from the Fiorina era to see whether there are major discrepancies.

However, some say that Gallegos is aware that most of the tickets in question involve people who went through the system in good faith, that she was told that the computer records are unreliable for the years before 1995.

And others, such as Manning, who have received such summonses say that Gallegos is causing needless problems for scores of people by pursuing the issue.

"What makes me mad is that even assuming Fiorina's record keeping wasn't up to snuff, if there was a problem, the court should have notified us that there was a problem, not just send it off to Motor Vehicles," said Connie, who asked that her last name not be used.

Her son like others caught in this trap had to pay a $17 court- cost fee as well as another fee of $25 at Motor Vehicles to get her son's license out of suspension.

Manning -- a political ally of Fiorina's, and Gallegos' harshest critic on the City Council long before Manning received her own summons -- used stronger words.

"I believe this judge is committing a fraud against the people of Santa Fe," Manning said.

But Gallegos insists she is only doing what is legally required of her.

"I can't just go in and close (the cases). I can't forgive all these charges," she said. "That would be amnesty. It's amnesty that got Fiorina in trouble, his `turkeys program.'

She was referring to Fiorina's practice of forgiving parking tickets before Thanksgiving each year in exchange for food donations to charities. In his last year of office he dropped the program after the state Judicial Standards Commission ruled that it was illegal.

City Manager Ron Curry told the City Council on Wednesday that he intends to ask the city attorney to issue a legal opinion on whether the show-cause orders issued by Gallegos are proper.

Earlier in the week City Attorney Mark Basham declined to comment on the situation except to say, "I think these cases would be difficult to prosecute if there's no information in the file."

Manning said she learned last week that her file did not even contain the original citation. "She's sending these summonses on the basis of a computer entry," Manning said. "I would urge anyone in this situation to demand to see their file and see whether their citations are still there."

Gallegos said the fact that an original citation is missing does not affect traffic cases. She also denied that most of the cases in question are missing the citations.

So where are the citations?

Dolores Baca, who worked as records clerk and head administrator during Fiorina's last two years, said all old files were routinely boxed and sent to the city archives.

Joseph Valdez of the city archives says his office keeps non-drunken-driving traffic records for three years, then as per state law has the boxes destroyed. Thus, the archives no longer has any of the files dated before 1994, Valdez said.

Michelle Ryals worked as a records clerk at the court for the last year of Fiorina's tenure and the first six months of Gallegos' administration. She said that when she started working there the court was severely understaffed and records were in a state of disarray.

Both Ryals and Baca said court staffers at that time rarely used the computer to enter dispositions of cases.

"It was a new computer system and there were a tremendous amount of glitches," Ryals said. "The staff was never properly trained on them." Most of the ticket dispositions were made by hand in the paper files, she said.

When Gallegos became judge in March 1996, Ryals said she told Gallegos about the situation. "I brought this up with her many times," Ryals said. "I left a note on the clerk's computer saying this and talked to everyone in the place about it."

Gallegos does not deny that Ryals told her about the reason for the lack of case dispositions showing up on the computer. But the judge insists it is her duty to pursue the opened cases.

Gallegos said about half the people who receive the summons admit that they indeed never showed up in court.

Because of Fiorina's record keeping, she says, she "takes people at their word if they say the charge was dismissed."

But, she still charges the $17 court-cost fee. "That fee is mandatory for all cases," she said.

Asked whether making people pay court fees if their case has already been disposed of constitutes double jeopardy, Gallegos said, "That fee should have been collected the first time they went in."

Is Gallegos justified in forcing people to come back to court for old tickets that likely were disposed of?

Fern Goodman, general counsel to the state Administrative Office of the Courts said, "She's trying to close these cases. It's good she's trying to close cases. She's inherited a big mess. But maybe there's a better way to go about it."

Goodman suggested that the court try to cross check court records with Motor Vehicle Division records.

However, an MVD records clerk last week said traffic cases that are dismissed must be sent to her agency by the courts; dismissed cases are not recorded and are routinely destroyed within days of being received.

At last week's City Council meeting, Councilor Art Sanchez tried to raise the question of whether any statute of limitations would prohibit the court from pursuing years-old traffic charges. Others have raised the question of the "six-month rule," which requires a court to drop charges if a defendant is not prosecuted within six months of the time in which he was charged.

Gallegos said in an interview last week that when failure to appear is the issue, the six-month rule does not apply.

Those who received summonses from Gallegos who were interviewed last week said they never received any previous notice from the court about failure to appear.

Asked about the six-month rule and failure to appear, District Attorney Henry Valdez whose office does not prosecute cases at the municipal level said, "Usually it's incumbent on the prosecutor to prove that the defendant was at fault for not appearing.

"With inadequate records it would be hard to prove a willful failure to appear."

Asked about whether a judge has the right to impose a fine on someone whose case was previously adjudicated, Valdez said, "I think we have something called `double jeopardy.' "

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