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Scope of Review in de novo Appeals from New Mexico Municipal Courts

The New Mexico Court of Appeals recently issued a ruling in Farmington v. Pinon-Garcia regarding the proper scope and standard of review for an appeal from a lower court that is not of record.

The Court held that the proper standard of review for decisions by a municipal court or any other court that is not of record is de novo, and that the scope includes a de novo review of all pretrial proceedings and preliminary matters raised by both parties.

De novo review is a standard of appellate review where the reviewing court analyses the facts of a case as if it were considering the issues for the first time, regardless of the lower court‘s findings.

The facts of Farmington v. Pinon-Garcia involved a Defendant charged with several traffic violations, including DWI. Defendant was arraigned in municipal court and the arresting officer failed to appear as the prosecution‘s witness on the day set for trial. Accordingly, since the prosecution failed to secure the presence of a witness for trial, the municipal court dismissed with prejudice. When a case is dismissed with prejudice it usually cannot be refiled.

The City of Farmington appealed the dismissal to the district court. The district court conducted a de novo trial on the merits of the case and the Defendant was convicted. On appeal, the New Mexico Court of Appeals found that the district court should have conducted a de novo hearing on whether the municipal court properly dismissed the issue before engaging in a de novo trial on the merits of the case.

The Court went on to explain the proper standard of review for rulings from a magistrate court, including whether it was proper to dismiss without prejudice, was de novo because the magistrate court was not a court of record. A court not of record is an inferior court where proceedings are not memorialized in the same way as those in courts of record. Since the district court was reviewing matters that are not part of a record, the proper standard of review is de novo.

According to the Court, the district court erred because it should have conducted a de novo review of all pretrial proceedings and preliminary matters, including the Defendant‘s motion to dismiss and whether he was being put in double jeopardy, before going on to hold a new trial.

In this case, the district court did not address whether the municipal court properly dismissed the charges against the defendant, did not take any additional evidence, or hold a hearing on the matter, but instead issued a ruling denying the Defendant‘s motion to dismiss. In doing so, the district court did not question whether dismissal by the municipal court was appropriate, whether a new trial on the merits was appropriate, or whether it put the Defendant in double jeopardy.

For these reasons, the case was reversed and remanded to the district court to perform a de novo review on whether the municipal court‘s dismissal for the prosecution‘s failure to secure the presence of a witness was appropriate. The Court also stated that the district court must specifically address double jeopardy issues in its review as well.

Issues of double jeopardy and standards of review can be very complicated. If you are faced with a situation like this, an experienced criminal attorney can explain your rights and options.

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