Alamosa Municipal Court is focus of 'Justice Derailed' ACLU report

ALAMOSA — The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado on Thursday released a report outlining concerns with Colorado’s more than 200 municipal courts, primarily Alamosa’s city court and Municipal Judge Daniel Powell.

In a release on Thursday, ACLU stated, “One court in particular — the Alamosa Municipal Court— systematically violates the constitutional rights of its mainly impoverished criminal defendants.”

“Justice Derailed: A case study of abusive and unconstitutional practices in Colorado city courts” is based on a multi-year ACLU investigation that reviewed state legislation as well as transcripts of local court proceedings. In addition, the report highlighted several individual cases processed by Judge Powell in the Alamosa Municipal Court.

Powell has been Alamosa’s municipal judge since January 1, 2010 and serves under a contract with the city, reviewed annually by the Alamosa city council.

The report, which features the train station in Alamosa with the “Justice Derailed” heading, almost entirely focuses on Alamosa’s municipal court and Judge Powell, who also serves as the municipal judge in Monte Vista, where the report states “same judge, same bad practices.”

The report stated, “While some Colorado municipal judges are actively working to improve the quality and fairness of their courts, others run their courtroom like a personal fiefdom, trampling on the rights of criminal defendants – especially those living in poverty – with impunity.”

ACLU of Colorado Policy Counsel Rebecca Wallace said, “Colorado’s city courts primarily handle our state’s lowest-level offenses, most of which are intimately tied to poverty and addiction. These courts are often the first contact individuals have with the criminal justice system. Yet, they operate without meaningful oversight, in the shadows of state law and the Constitution. This lack of oversight can and does pave the way for gross civil liberties violations.”

According to “Justice Derailed,” the Alamosa Municipal Court under Judge Powell, “stands out among Colorado municipal courts for the frequency and seriousness of constitutional abuses, the lack of respect for individuals who appear before the court, the striking difference in treatment between impoverished defendants and those with means, and the sense of fundamental injustice that permeates many court proceedings.”

Using transcripts, courtroom audio and case summaries, the report provided examples of Judge Powell “issuing unnecessary arrest warrants, allowing defendants to languish in jail for days or even weeks for low-level offenses, denying counsel to indigent defendants, imposing fines that are vastly disproportionate to the crime, and using jail and the threat of jail to collect money from defendants who cannot afford to pay, in violation of state law.”  

“Judge Powell is operating a two-tiered system in which defendants are punished for their poverty. Those with means might only appear once in court and pay their debt, while those who lack financial resources face a cruel form of injustice,” said ACLU of Colorado Research and Policy Associate Becca Curry, who co-authored the report. “We saw cases where a person had received a simple traffic infraction or was accused of shoplifting less than two dollars’ worth of food, and just because they could not pay their court debt were trapped for years in a cycle of debt and incarceration.”

The authors of the report pointed to Alamosa’s poverty level, with 35 percent of the population falling below the poverty line, as well as the opioid crisis.

“Rather than using his position to connect addicts to services, Judge Powell vilifies and blames people with addiction and often issues arrest warrants for individuals that he knows cannot attend court proceedings because they are in voluntary drug rehab programs,” the release stated.

The report also attributed the overcrowding at the Alamosa County Jail to Alamosa Municipal Court’s “practice of issuing long sentences for minor offenses.” In 2016, 90 percent of the 475 arrest warrants issued by the court were for low-level nonviolent offenses, according to the report.

“While Alamosa provides a comprehensive display of all that can go wrong when a local court has too much power and too little accountability, these abuses are present in many municipal courts throughout the state,” said Wallace. “The legislature and the Colorado Supreme Court must take action to ensure that all of our municipal courts are transparent, accountable, and just.”

“Justice Derailed” provided a set of recommendations for the Alamosa Municipal Court to bring its court into compliance with constitutional standards and state law, as well as recommendations for the state legislature to establish reporting requirements, incentivize municipalities to establish an independent public defender system, establish written ability-to-pay assessment criteria, require courts to individualize sentences to fit the crime and the defendant’s ability to pay, and create a statewide study group to study municipal court practices and make further recommendations to address injustices in the municipal courts.

See the full report here.

City response
Although phone and email messages to Judge Powell were not answered on Thursday, Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks responded with the following statements:

"The city did not receive the report until this morning so that was our first opportunity to view it. Really at this point we're limited in the comments we can offer because of that. We remain committed to all federal, state and local laws. If there's any reference contrary of that, we take that very, very seriously.

“We have every intention of reviewing this report, looking at the data it contains, looking at our reports and the data we have and evaluating that and processing that with city council in a very open and transparent manner. There's not much comments we can offer because we haven't had a chance to really review the report and we don't want to start heading down any road without knowing what's in there. We want to be objective and fair.”

Caption: Monte Vista Mayor Debbie Garcia in July of 2014 swears in Daniel Powell as Monte Vista’s new municipal judge. File photo.