SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – When it comes to DWI prosecution in Santa Fe County, District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies says, “the buck stops with me for sure.” Ask the D.A. about drunk driving prosecutions and she’ll tout her record. “Our conviction rate is 95%,” Carmack-Altwies says.
While Santa Fe’s District Attorney can talk all day about DWI cases she takes to the court, there’s one thing she doesn’t like to address: The hundreds of drunk driving cases sitting in her office unprosecuted.
Like Phillip Felch. In August 2021 he ran a red light, t-boned a vehicle, failed a field sobriety test, and blew twice the legal limit. Felch was arrested by Santa Fe Police for aggravated DWI 5th Offense. The case has been gathering dust in the Santa Fe D.A.’s office for nearly two years, unprosecuted.
In October 2020, Carol Romero was stopped by Santa Fe County Deputies after she was spotted driving with two flat tires on I-25. Romero had slurred speech, reeked of alcohol, failed a field sobriety test, and was arrested for Aggravated DWI 3rd Offense. But Romero got a free ride because the District Attorney didn’t bother prosecuting her DWI case.
In August 2020 after Eben McFarlane was driving erratically, he was stopped by the New Mexico State Police. He told officers he had had 4 beers. After failing a field sobriety test, McFarlane was arrested for Felony DWI, 4th Offense. But McFarlane has yet to be prosecuted. His case file has been gathering dust in the Santa Fe D.A.’s office for almost three years.
A nine-month KRQE News 13 investigation finds, over a two-year period, Santa Fe’s District Attorney has failed to prosecute more than 400 drunk driving cases. Defendants accused of everything from DWI 1st Offense to Felony DWI never got their day in court.
“The word tragedy (comes to mind) because there are so many DWI arrests that aren’t going to conviction,” says Tom Starke, Executive Director of the non-profit organization, Impact DWI. Starke told KRQE News 13 the large number of accused drunk drivers who are not prosecuted “sends the message that DWI isn’t very important anymore.”
How did this happen? Once someone is arrested on DWI charges, Magistrate Court rules give the D.A. 45 days to gather all the police evidence and file formal charges. If the court-imposed deadline isn’t met then the case cannot be prosecuted. Santa Fe’s D.A. says the 45-day deadline doesn’t give her staff enough time to compile all the police reports, videos, and test results necessary to prosecute DWI cases. To buy more time, the D.A. directed her prosecutors to dismiss all drunk driving cases in court and then refile them later.
“We instituted a policy to dismiss every single (DWI) case in order to gather all of the evidence necessary to prosecute those cases. … Every case where we get the discovery, we refile. … And if we refile a case in Santa Fe County, you’re going to get convicted,” Santa Fe County District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies says.
On paper, it’s a remedy to avoid court-imposed deadlines. In practice, however, the D.A.’s policy has been a public safety fiasco. While all Santa Fe DWI cases are being dismissed, court records show hundreds of them aren’t being refiled.
Consider Travis Laughlin. After hitting a median the vehicle Laughlin was driving launched into a Santa Fe parking lot in October 2020. A passenger was killed and Laughlin was seriously injured. His blood alcohol was almost 3 times the legal limit (.21). He was charged with Homicide By Vehicle DWI. To allow more time to collect evidence, the D.A. routinely dismissed the case in court. That was two and a half years ago. Today, Travis Laughlin’s 2020 case remains unprosecuted because the D.A. has yet to refile charges. Nearly one year later, Travis Laughlin was arrested again on drunk driving charges, this time in Albuquerque. However, those charges were dismissed by the Bernalillo County District Attorney.
Adan Cardenas had four prior DWIs when he was involved in a Santa Fe hit-and-run in August 2020. With a pint of vodka in his back pocket, Cardenas refused a field sobriety test and was charged with a felony, Aggravated DWI (5th). The D.A. dismissed the charges almost 3 years ago and hasn’t refiled them.
When Santa Fe Police Officers caught up with Ruben James in October 2021, he had 4 prior DWI’s and a revoked driver’s license. He was arrested and charged with a felony, Aggravated DWI (5th). Days later the case was routinely dismissed by the District Attorney. That was 19 months ago. The Santa Fe D.A. is still sitting on the case.
Over a two-year period (August 2020-July 2022), court records show the Santa Fe District Attorney filed and then dismissed almost 900 drunk driving cases. However, a little less than half of them have not been refiled. The D.A.’s failure to refile petty misdemeanor and misdemeanor DWI cases means more than 300 accused drunk drivers can’t be prosecuted due to the Statute of Limitations. The Statute of Limitations on felony DWI is five years.
For example, Ramon Rivera Saravia. After he crashed his vehicle along Bishop’s Lodge Road and admitted drinking whiskey and beer in November 2021, Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Deputies placed Rivera Saravia under arrest for Aggravated DWI (1st) which is a Petty Misdemeanor. But Rivera Saravia needn’t worry about going to court. The D.A. had one year to refile the charges. She didn’t.
The list of Santa Fe County drunk driving cases lost due to the Statute of Limitations goes on and on: Troy Tenorio. Dale Sturgen. Jaden Potts. KRQE News 13’s investigation finds, between August 3, 2020 and May 18, 2022, the Santa Fe District Attorney failed to prosecute within one year more than 300 Petty Misdemeanor DWI cases. Those cases cannot be refiled and are permanently lost. “I disagree with those statistics,” D.A. Mary Carmack-Altwies says. “I don’t think it was 300. … There were problems in the system all the way around. And yes, there were some cases that were lost,” Carmack-Altwies said.
In fact, it appears there are so many drunk driving cases pending in Santa Fe, the D.A. can’t keep track of them all. In a November 2022 interview, Carmack-Altwies told the Santa Fe New Mexican, “We really have no way of accurately tracking cases.” She told KRQE News 13, “prior to the last eight, nine, ten months” her office staff has had a problem tracking DWI cases.
“I’ve never seen a blanket policy of dismissing cases in all my years of law enforcement,” Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza says. “The community expects that when we arrest somebody for DWI, that they be held accountable and they be prosecuted. When you give me the number of 400 plus cases that have been dismissed and not refiled, I don’t care what the crime is, that’s an issue,” Sheriff Mendoza said.
“It bothers me a great deal. You’re playing roulette with people’s lives,” says retired career prosecutor Steve Suttle. “There are too many people who have at least been charged with drunk driving, who never get prosecuted for it. This sort of dismissal rate really flies in the face of what we’ve been trying to do for 30 years,” Suttle said. Suttle is among the state’s foremost experts on DWI law. As a former Assistant Attorney General, he handled the appeal of the Gordon House case and played a key role in reforming New Mexico’s antiquated drunk driving laws.
“The whole idea of DWI reform was to provide greater penalties for repeat offenders and provide treatment. If you can’t get the person off the streets the first or second time and at least get them into treatment or punish them … you haven’t achieved anything,” Suttle says.
“I think dismissals can be the result of many factors. But in Santa Fe County, this dismissal rate is being driven by a policy that was put in place by the District Attorney,” says Santa Fe County Community Services Director Rachel O’Connor. During the Governor Richardson administration, O’Connor served as New Mexico’s ‘DWI Czar’. O’Connor says there are serious consequences to not prosecuting accused drunk drivers. “That person doesn’t get an ignition interlock. That person doesn’t have access to treatment. There’s no Community Service. All the sanctions that the legislature put in place to stop drunk driving, this person does not then receive,” Rachel O’Connor says.
District Attorney Carmack-Altwies says she does not owe any apologies for the prosecution of DWI cases.