ALAMOSA — During a work session Wednesday night Alamosa city council and staff responded to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report released last week regarding the Alamosa Municipal Court and specifically Municipal Judge Daniel Powell.
The report “Justice Derailed: A case study of abusive and unconstitutional practices in Colorado city courts” set out several allegations including that the city court “systematically violates the constitutional rights of its mainly impoverished criminal defendants.”
Although staff indicated they expected the judge to attend the work session Wednesday evening, he was not present. Councilor Kristina Daniel said, “I am highly frustrated that he is not here, and I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
Several Alamosa police officers attended the session in support of Judge Powell, and Alamosa Police Chief Duane Oakes said the officers, who regularly observe Judge Powell during court proceedings, have respect for Judge Powell and “think that he is fair with the defendants and he treats them with respect.”
City staff, specifically City Attorney Erich Schwiesow and City Manager Heather Brooks, provided to council a written response to the ACLU report and reviewed primary accusations made by the ACLU against Judge Powell.
The staff also shared several recommendations for changes that could be made in the municipal court process, one of which was to set up a judicial advisory review board, similar to the judicial review process already in place at the county and district court levels in the San Luis Valley.
Councilor Charles Griego asked staff if the ACLU’s requests for information from the city over the course of the time the report was being written raised any red flags so the city would not have been blindsided by the report. Brooks said a lot of courts get CORA (Colorado Open Records Act) requests.
“CORA requests are not usually a red flag,” she said.
Griego said, “To get a report like this, even reading this report, I was disgusted. Sure, maybe some people don’t tell the truth, but this document the way it’s presented and some of the remarks, it’s not good … Some of the stuff I read in here … I was disgusted because of some of the stuff that was going on. Apparently we are saying it’s not true.”
Schwiesow said, “There are things in the report that are not true, that are completely inaccurate, and there are things in the report that probably are true. The issue I have on reading the report when you are saying you are disgusted, that’s exactly the reaction the ACLU was going for. This is not a fair report.”
He added that this was not an attempt on the ACLU’s behalf to rectify problems it saw with the municipal court, because if that had been the ACLU’s goal, they would have contacted the City of Alamosa to discuss the problems.
“But instead it was a report that was specifically designed to elicit the reaction you have,” Schwiesow said.
“This is not a fair and objective report,” he added. “This was not something that was done with the goal of bettering the Alamosa court system.”
Daniel said she had to read the ACLU report three times because her initial response was anger: “I was very, very angry, and I don’t think this is what Alamosa is about … These allegations are not OK nor are they appropriate.”
She said it is the council’s job to be accountable and bring a balance to the situation, because the truth was probably in the middle somewhere.
She said she struggled with balancing the need to repair the harm that crimes have caused with understanding that offenders do not always commit crimes because they want to.
“ACLU did not mention anything about the victims and how we repair harm done to them,” Daniel said. “I think that is a huge gap in this report.”
The report highlighted a few defendants and their concerns with how they were treated.
Councilor Liz Thomas Hensley said her initial response to the ACLU report was shock.
“It was one sided,” she said. “It was very biased.”
She thanked the staff for the responses to the allegations in the report.
“Without a doubt there’s things that need to be dealt with,” Hensley said. “It was an area I had never really considered.”
Mayor Josef Lucero said, “I do consider the ACLU report somewhat biased.” However, he added, “I think it affords us an opportunity to take an in-depth look at the municipal court, our judge and ways in which we can improve that situation. That’s really what it’s all about, because council, the buck stops with us. We are the ones that need to make improvements.”
He thanked staff for their recommendations and said the recommendation for a judicial performance review committee was an excellent idea that needed to be implemented soon.
Lucero added, “I am not one for sensationalism. I like to look at the facts and see what’s going on and make a good informed decision, and I think staff really helped us with that.”
Councilman Jan Vigil asked where the council goes from here, such as a meeting with the judge.
Brooks said this is just the beginning in dealing with the situation, and a meeting with the judge would be a good idea. She said it is the council’s prerogative in how it moves forward, and the staff has already begun to make some changes to address concerns.
More of the city’s responses to the ACLU allegations and recommendations can be read here.