ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - New Mexico highways are crawling with drunk drivers who have figured out the secret to beating the system and getting their driver’s licenses back, according to a seven-month investigation by News 13’s Larry Barker.
“It has just become a muddy mess,” said Gorden Eden , secretary of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety . “We are putting the legal right to drive back into the people’s hands who are causing the vast majority of our motor vehicle fatalities in this state.”
The loophole doesn’t occur in court, however. It happens at the state’s Motor Vehicle Department .
That’s because after a person is arrested for driving while intoxicated, state law automatically revokes their driving privileges for up to one year. However, the person can challenge the loss of their license by asking for an administrative hearing presided over by an MVD hearing officer. The hearings are not court proceedings. If the person can prove the DWI arrest was not by the book , the MVD must return the license unfettered.
Here’s the problem: police officers are required to attend the hearing and justify the driver’s arrest. Hearing rules require only the driver’s lawyer to attend the hearing. If the police officer is just 10 minutes late or does not show up, MVD automatically restores the person’s driving privileges.
“The reality is we’ve got a system that’s broken,” said Albuquerque Police Cheif Ray Schultz . “It’s allowing drunk drivers to beat the system and get their driver’s licenses back.”
Since 2003, more than 14,000 drunk drivers got a break when police officers failed to show up for MVD administrative hearings, according to News 13’s investigation. That’s enough drunk drivers to fill every jail cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center more than six times over.
“That’s not justice and that’s not the way the system should work,” said state Rep. Al Park, D-Albuquerque, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “These drunk drivers are falling through the cracks at this administrative hearing. And they get to keep their licenses. And that means that, frankly, you and me and everyone on the road is in danger.”
Take Delano Sanchez, for example. Following his sixth DWI arrest last year, the state revoked his driver’s license. Two months later, he got it back when the officer who arrested him did not appear at his MVD hearing, according to records.
Diego Sanchez got the same break following his arrest for aggravated drunk driving – Sanchez’s fourth DWI arrest, according to records. Same goes for Yvette Wise, who had three prior DWI arrests when she was pulled over last year for aggravated drunk driving. Both received their licenses back when police officers didn’t show up.
And there are even more-troubling examples.
Jessica Ricord was arrested for DWI in February. MVD gave her license back in May after an officer failed to appear at her MVD hearing. Ricord was back in jail for drunk driving in July.
Kenneth Cannon was arrested for DWI last year, received his license back and was arrested again for drunk driving. Police arrested Hector Martinez for drunk driving for the second time last year. He also got his license back and was later re-arrested for drunk driving.
“Defense attorneys know it’s impossible for an officer to be present at every scheduled hearing,” Schultz said. “And they play the game. They play the odds. And unfortunately, the odds are in their favor.”
APD spends millions of dollars a year on overtime for officers to attend hearings, depositions and criminal court cases. And while Schultz admitted that hearings are a part of the job, officers are routinely required to be in multiple places at the same time.
“There’s not enough hours in a day – not enough hours in the week – in order for us to make sure that we have an officer present at every administrative hearing,” Schultz said.
For example, Monday, Aug. 24 was APD DWI Officer Gustavo Gomez’s regularly scheduled day off.
“He’s scheduled to start the morning off at 8 with a grand jury case,” Schultz said. “He’s then scheduled to be in Metropolitan Court at 9:30. He has a pre-trial scheduled at 10:30. Another pre-trial scheduled at 11. Another pre-trial scheduled at 11:15. Another pre-trial scheduled at 11:30. An MVD administrative license revocation hearing scheduled at 1. He’s scheduled to be in Metropolitan Court at 1:30. And he’s scheduled to be at MVD at 2 in the afternoon.”
Gov. Susana Martinez vowed the close the loophole.
“We’re going to fight to change that statute,” she told News 13. “That is not a statute that should continue to exist because it favors one side over the other. And the side that it is most against are the people of New Mexico who are on the roadways going about their business and possibly having that same drunk driver driving once again drunk with a valid driver’s license.”
Among the statute changes the Governor will ask the Legislature to consider in January is a provision to allow police officers to testify over the phone rather than in person.
Eden said fixing the problem is up to legislators in Santa Fe.
“It’s going to take an action by the Legislature,” he said, “to correct the mayhem that we are creating to these administrative hearings.
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