Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

Animal abuse suspect's release complex


January 30, 2019

People who read a Quay County Sun story last week about a Tucumcari man accused of abusing a puppy wondered on social media why the suspect was released from jail one day after his felony arrest.

The answer is complicated. But one reason the suspect was freed by a magistrate judge was because of a recent ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court.

A city police officer on Jan. 17 arrested Ralph Fletcher, 29, on a felony complaint of extreme cruelty to animals. The officer, responding to a complaint of a dog being beaten, stated he saw Fletcher choking a 3-month-old male pit bull puppy to where the animal could not stand. Fletcher told the officer he was trying to teach the puppy to not run away when it was outside, the complaint stated.

After Judge Timothy O’Quinn found probable cause for the charge, he recused himself from the case. Judge Karen Mitchell on Jan. 18 ordered Fletcher released from the Quay County Detention Center on his own recognizance and several other conditions.

The state’s high court, citing the U.S. Constitution and inequities in the justice system, ruled that suspects should not be held in jail simply because they cannot afford to post their bail. It follows a legal philosophy that the intent of bail is to guarantee a suspect will show up for court dates, not to detain people who have not been convicted of the charges they face.

Marion Payton, court executive officer of the 10th Judicial District in Tucumcari, said judges are reluctant to hold crime suspects in jail unless they’re accused of violent offenses. In those cases, she said a judge will hold a detention hearing to determine whether a suspect is a threat to the safety of other persons or the community.

According to online court records, Fletcher was ruled indigent and assigned public defender Anna Aragon as his attorney. Attempts to contact Aragon were unsuccessul.

Mitchell assigned several conditions with Fletcher’s release. He cannot own firearms or other weapons and was forbidden from owning or coming in contact with animals or using illegal drugs. He must notify the court of any address change, keep his employment and ask for permission before traveling out-of-state.

Online court records indicate Fletcher previously had not been charged with any other violent crimes in New Mexico.

Alan Edmonds, a cruelty case manager for Animal Protection of New Mexico, said felony charges of animal cruelty are relatively rare because prosecutors have to prove the suspect’s intent. He said the fact the Tucumcari police officer stated he saw the abuse being committed likely led to the tougher charge.

“It’s his testimony probably is that thing that’s going to prove intent in this case,” he said.

Extreme cruelty to animals is a fourth-degree felony that can lead to up to 18 months in prison or a $5,000 fine.

Edmonds said he understood why courts are reluctant to hold suspects because of their inability to post bond. But he said animal-abuse cases raise red flags and often prompt law enforcement to do additional investigations of such suspects.

“There’s a pretty well-established connection between animal cruelty and other types of crime,” he said, “not just against animals, but against humans, as well. Some are habitual and repeat offenders.”

As for the puppy, Tucumcari police took custody of it Jan. 22 after it received treatment from veterinarian Dr. Jean Corey at Tucumcari Animal Hospital.

Tucumcari Police Deputy Chief Pete Rivera said the puppy will remain in the city’s kennel as evidence until the animal-cruelty case is resolved. Fletcher could take back ownership of the animal if he’s cleared of the charge.

Rivera praised officer Justin Garcia for going “above and beyond” in investigating the case.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund ranks New Mexico 46th of 50 states for the strength of its animal-protection laws, according to the group’s website. The only states that were rated worse were Wyoming, Iowa, Mississippi and Kentucky.


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