ALAMOSA — Meeting with Alamosa city councilors and staff Wednesday night, Municipal Judge Daniel Powell responded to a recent American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report.
The judge is not renewing his contract with the city at the end of the year, and the council is looking for a new municipal judge. He has served as municipal judge since 2010. The city staff and council hope to have someone hired by the first part of December so the new judge can spend a few court days with Judge Powell before the end of the year.
In addition to speaking with Powell about the ACLU report on Wednesday, the council discussed the search process and ongoing and future steps the city council and staff plan to take to address municipal court issues, some of which are unrelated to the ACLU report.
Judge Powell told the council that the ACLU’s accusation that he was unfair to impoverished persons “wounded me to the core.” He explained that he personally understood poverty very well, because he was raised in impoverished conditions himself. Without the support of his alcoholic father, his mother raised her four children by herself, Powell said.
“From the time I was 8 years old, until I graduated from high school at the age of 18, I lived in poverty,” the judge said.
After that he continued to live under difficult financial conditions as he worked his way through college and law school, he added.
“I was raised by my mother to believe that there is no shame in poverty,” he said. “ I have never felt ashamed of growing up the way I did.”
Judge Powell, who has been a practicing attorney for 34 years, said that as a judge he sometimes saw people attempting to use poverty as an excuse for their violations of laws, and he never has accepted that as a valid excuse from them or himself.
He spoke of a time when he was a freshman in college, for example, and he got a speeding ticket on his way to class. To pay for his court costs and fines, he sold back a new economics book he had purchased for class and bought a used one instead.
“I did not attempt to use my poverty as an excuse for my conduct,” he said, “nor did I attempt to use my poverty as an excuse for not fulfilling my obligation to that court. I did the best that I could do to accept responsibility for my actions and to be accountable.”
The judge said that is the attitude he takes in the courtroom as well, that people need to be accountable for their actions. He said that may be deemed “old school,” but he made no apology for trying to help people who came before the court to find a way to be accountable.
“That does not mean, however, that I am unsympathetic to the plight of those who are impoverished,” he said. “I have lived it.”
Powell said he was glad he has more options now at sentencing than he did before, and the city is working on additional options. For example, staff members (specifically Alamosa Police Chief Duane Oakes and City Clerk Holly Martinez) are completing an application for the adult diversion program LEAD, which is due November 2. LEAD will provide defendants services to address the issues behind their repeated criminal offenses.
The city court is already utilizing juvenile and adult diversion programs for first-time offenders, programs that have been in place since January and February of this year, as well as a supervised probation program through RMOMS as an alternative to jail for offenders with multiple cases, “put into place before any complaints were registered with the city by ACLU,” Powell noted. The ACLU did not take these and other changes into consideration in its report, he added.
Judge Powell said he had spent a quarter during college in an internship with the ACLU office in Denver when Jim Joyce was the director, and he did not believe Joyce would have allowed a report like this to be issued.
“That man was a man of character and someone I always felt very proud to know,” Powell said.
“We live in an age of spin,” Powell said.
He added that one of the individuals featured in the ACLU report was in his courtroom on Wednesday, and the person told one of Judge Powell’s clerks, who relayed the message to him, that ACLU “twisted my words.” The defendant told the clerk, “That man may have saved my life. He’s a good man.”
Powell said, “That made me feel better to hear.”
City Prosecutor Gene Farish spoke in favor of Judge Powell, and many members of the Alamosa Police Department attended the Wednesday meeting in support of the judge.
Farish said he has served as city prosecutor since Powell has been on the bench, and when he read the ACLU report, “I really wondered what judge they were talking about because I have not seen this … What I have seen he’s been very respectful of defendants.”
Farish said he had seen the judge lose his patience when defendants offered lame excuses or interrupted him, but that would happen with any judge.
Judge Powell added, “It is a judge’s obligation to maintain control of the courtroom and to insist upon a level of respect for the court, not for the judge, not for the individual who is wearing the robe but for the operation of the court, and I do insist on that.”
He added that he does not allow defendants to interrupt him because for one thing it is disrespectful and for another thing, he wants them to hear what he is trying to tell them. He said he did not know of any other judges who would allow defendants to interrupt them either.
Farish said the characterizations of Judge Powell in the ACLU report were not what he had seen. He added that he saw ACLU as an activist organization focused on the rights of defendants but not on victims’ rights, “and I think they probably chose Alamosa to be what you might characterize as a poster child for attacking the municipal court system throughout the state in Colorado.”
Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks told the council she and City Attorney Erich Schwiesow spoke with a representative from the ACLU on Tuesday, the first time that ACLU had reached out to the city during this process. Brooks said she and Schwiesow made it clear during the conversation that they would not engage in a casual conversation with ACLU in light of the possibility that ACLU might bring litigation against the city at some point.
“We want to work with them, hear what they have to say, but we also need to make sure we are protecting the city as well,” Brooks said.
She said ACLU shared more information, case law and “best practices.”
Schwiesow said he sent privileged communication to the council afterwards, which he could not talk about publicly, “but in general the conversation was digging a little deeper into points raised in the report.”
When Councilor Liz Thomas Hensley asked if the staff asked ACLU why they took the stand they did and had not come to the city before releasing the report, Brooks said, “I can’t speak for the ACLU. My impression based on the conversation, I did not get a sense that they felt there was anything in accurate in their report and the way they handled it was inappropriate, but we did not specifically ask them that question.”
The city council and staff will hold more work sessions to discuss proposed changes for the court and the council’s direction and philosophy going forward.