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Timely Preliminary Hearings for Juveniles Facing Adult Charges in New Mexico

In New Mexico there are time limits that prosecutors and courts must adhere to in order to ensure due process. One of the limits involves timely preliminary hearings. These time limits are very important to the rights of accused persons. They are taken seriously by the courts of New Mexico and often the form the basis for dismissal.

The time limits come up in a variety of ways from the speedy trial rule to discovery violations to statutes of limitations. A lesser known violation of time limits came up recently in the in State v. Leticia T.. In that case, the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled on what type of remedy is available to a juvenile who did not receive a timely preliminary hearing when the State was seeking an adult sentence.

The underlying case in State v. Leticia T. involved a sixteen-year-old child charged with assault and battery of a police officer, for which the State sought an adult sentence. The child was taken into custody and her preliminary hearing was held twenty-four days after the prosecution filed a notice to seek an adult sentence.

Under Rule 10-213 (B) of the New Mexico Children‘s Court Rules, a preliminary hearing must be conducted within fifteen days after a notice to seek an adult sentence, unless the case is presented to a grand jury or the child waives her right to a preliminary hearing or grand jury. Under Section 32A-2-20 (A) of the New Mexico Children‘s Code, a preliminary hearing must be conducted within ten working days of the State‘s notice to seek an adult sentence.

In the present case, the Court did not go into the question of whether the Defendant was entitled to a preliminary hearing within ten or fifteen days of the filing of notice to seek adult charges because both were violated. Instead, the Court went on to analyze what remedy is appropriate when either statute is violated, since both are “worded in mandatory terms.”

According to the Court of Appeals, dismissal of the charges is not the proper remedy for a violation of the mandatory time limits for a preliminary hearing. Under Children‘s Court Rule 10-101 (A)(2)(b), when there is a notice to seek adult charges and the child is a “youthful offender,” the Rules of Criminal Procedure govern all proceedings in Children‘s Court, unless specifically provided in the Children‘s Court Rules. Children‘s Court Rule 10-144 specifically provides that error by the court or any party, including violation of time limits, is not ground for dismissal unless this is inconsistent with the interests of justice.

In this case, the Court found that despite the violation of Rule 10-213 (B)‘s preliminary hearing requirement, there were no grounds for dismissal of the charges. Similarly, the Court found that dismissal was not the proper remedy for a violation of Section 32A-2-20 (A) of the New Mexico Children‘s Code.

To warrant dismissal under this Section, a defendant child must show prejudice. In other words, the Defendant must show that the delay in their preliminary hearing past ten days of the notice was not due to scheduling conflicts and other administrative reasons, but because there was prejudice against her either on the part of the court or state. The Court did not find such prejudice in this case and therefore denied the Defendant‘s motion to dismiss.

The Court itself understood that its ruling in this case represents the erosion of the protections given to juveniles under the New Mexico Children‘s Court Rules and Children‘s Code. However, the Court stated that it had no choice because only the New Mexico Supreme Court can write or rewrite rules of court procedure.

The Court in this case echoed the New Mexico Supreme Court in calling on the Children‘s Rules Committee to revisit the time limits for youthful offenders. As the law in New Mexico stands today, even though the rules are written in mandatory language, there is effectively no real remedy for the youthful offenders when they are not given a preliminary hearing in a timely manner.

The time limits in criminal prosecutions often rely on the discretion of the court and a determination of prejudice to the defendant. These time limits are important and should and typically are challenged by criminal defense attorneys. Though the outcome here suggests otherwise, time limits are often the first and best line of defense.

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