By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
Tucumcari Municipal Court will offer community service as an alternative to fines or jail time for some persons convicted of violating city laws, under terms of a civil lawsuit settlement.
The court will also arrange for an attorney to be available to represent defendants facing jail time.
The Tucumcari City Commission decided to start implementing these policies as the city’s first step to honor settlement terms from a class-action civil rights case against the court and the city.
“I’m glad they settled,” said Municipal Court Judge Joe Dominguez said. “I’m glad we’ve got the community service option for people who can’t afford to pay the fines.”
The suit was filed in September 2012 at 10th Judicial District Court on behalf of six named plaintiffs and “all those similarly situated…” Dominguez and the city were named as defendants.
The case was moved to U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, because of civil rights and constitutional issues it presented.
Named as plaintiffs are Tammy Russell, Orlando Martinez, Amanda Romero, Clayton Martinez, Lawrence Rivas, Sr., and Mary Espino Rivas.
They alleged, among other things, Dominguez denied them:
• Community service to repay fines and costs levied by the municipal judge.
• Legal representation when faced with possible incarceration by the municipal judge.
• The opportunity to be heard in the course of due process.
Further, the suit alleged the municipal judge, acting for, and on behalf of the city, had:
• Refused partial payments when offered by those who had fines imposed.
• Refused to issue a summons or orders to show cause prior to taking action against members of the class.
• Issued bench warrants for arrest without providing due process.
• Refused the appointment of legal counsel prior to or after issuing bench warrants for arrest, or after returns of the warrants.
• Refused the appointment of legal counsel for hearings against members of the class prior to incarcerating them for the “alleged crime” of inability to pay fines.
• Ordered incarceration for members of the class without any judicial authority, and
• Charged members of the class for incarceration costs without any judicial authority or even a façade of due process.
The case came to an informal conclusion Jan. 23 with a verbal settlement between plaintiffs attorneys and representatives of the city, its insurer and attorneys. Attending the hearing were attorneys Nicole Moss and Len Walker, who brought the original suit against the plaintiffs; Ron Childress, the judge’s and city’s attorney; Dominguez; Earl Spencer, representing Travelers’ Insurance; and City Manager Doug Powers.
Powers explained that insurance and liability were the major stumbling block in allowing community service.
A press release from Walker said the city and the municipal court agreed in the settlement to:
• Start a community service program.
• Cease charging improper fees against defendants.
• Provide counsel to defendants charged with contempt.
• Cease issuing bench warrants for failure to pay fines without a finding of direct contempt.
• Cease charging jail fees and costs to defendants for incarceration.
According to the news release, other corrective actions the municipal court and the city agreed to include:
• All illegal fees for notices will be deducted from balances.
• All illegal charges for previous incarceration will be removed.
• Each person will receive credit for every day of incarceration at the federal rate based upon minimum wage, approximately $58/day, to be charged against any remaining legitimate court ordered fines.
• Each will receive a release and reinstatement of driving privileges from the municipal court.
Childress declined to comment on the settlement Monday, saying he wants to wait until the terms of the settlement are in writing. He said he expects that to happen within a few weeks.
“Attorneys for the plaintiffs are pleased with the settlement in that it will bring an endless ‘Catch-22′ cycle to an end for those citizens who were powerless to take corrective action on their own,” Walker said.