New Mexico DAs Transfer Violent Crime Case To Federal Court System

New Mexico DA

A dark bandana covers his face, he struts along with a silver gun on his side, and he goes on to rob nearly 50 Albuquerque restaurants and stores over a seven-month period. In addition to taking the cash from security safes and registers, he takes time to steal sandwiches, tacos, and cellphones. His name is Paul Salas, and he is now serving 24 years in a federal prison.

After reviewing the police audio interview of the perpetrator, a state district judge explained that Salas perceived that he was doing a favor to his community. The interview was recorded after Salas, a 46-year-old, 5’4”, 220-pound, convicted sex offender, was finally apprehended in March of 2017.

Salas always called his armed robberies “licks” and constructed his own variant of a thief’s creed.

  • No robberies with children around
  • No robbing from the “War Zone” neighborhood (too many policemen)
  • No robberies in the South Valley (where his family resides)
  • “When the sun drops, it’s time.”

In 2017, an Albuquerque state district judge refused requests to keep Salas in jail before his trial on 47 accounts of armed robbery. The judge stated that the lack of supporting evidence from the district prosecutors informed his decision to set bail to $100,000 in cash.

However, only a week later, on March 29, 2017, federal prosecutors took charge of the case against Albuquerque’s eccentric robber and transferred it to the city’s magistrate judge. This judge ordered Salas to remain in federal custody until his trial. He cited the need to ensure safety in the community and Salas’ appearance at the trial.

Because of the transfer of the case from the DA to the federal courts, Salas is now serving 24 years in federal prison. Because many of his crimes violate both federal and state law, Salas pleaded guilty to using a firearm during a crime of violence, interference with interstate commerce, as well as failing to register as a sex offender.

Around 201 state criminal cases, most of them involving guns or other violent crimes, have been transferred to the federal court system over the past two years, according to the data from the office of District Attorney Raul Torrez and the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Out of those 201, 147 cases were formally initiated in federal court, either by complaint or indictment.

Over the last two years, Torrez has appointed three state prosecutors to help prosecute and screen cases in federal court. Currently, he is planning to ask the state legislature to appropriate more funds so that his office can “ramp this up.”

Torrez stated that he intended to make a strong case of why the department should do this. This includes removing the most dangerous and violent criminals from the streets as well as the fact that the federal system is probably the most reliable institution for prosecuting such criminals.

The federal court system often has more strict prison sentences as well as different rules for detaining various violent criminals or repeat offenders before trial.

New data shows that 72 defendants, including Salas, have had pretrial detention motions filed against them by their prosecutors in both federal and state courts.

However, new data reveals that state judges released more than half of the 73 defendants from pretrial detention. While, on the other hand, when their cases were transferred to federal court, only 7% obtained pretrial release.

Torrez pointed out that such a difference between the rates of pretrial detainment were troubling. He also stated that this was something that the legislature in Santa Fe should try and combat.

He emphasized that the reason for such different outcomes should be questioned and that the citizens expected better from their state’s court system, and if the state’s court wouldn’t get criminals off the streets than maybe it was time for a different model.

John C. Anderson, U.S. Attorney, described the DA’s initiative as the perfect embodiment of the DoJ’s priorities, set by U.S. Attorney General William Barr and his predecessor Jeff Sessions, on combating violent crime across the nation. In Albuquerque, there has been no resistance from the federal lawyers or defense attorneys, according to Anderson. He stated that he believed that people understood what they were trying to do as well as recognize the high violent crime rates.

In Paul Salas’ case, the state judge denied the request to keep Salas in custody, stating that the DA’s Office didn’t have any audio or video evidence or testimony from a witness, which included law enforcement.

The judge set the bond to $100,000 in cash, and Salas remained in custody while the DA’s Office requested help from the U.S. Attorney’s office.

After the prosecutors went through filing an official federal complaint charging Salas with the armed robberies, U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Molzen held a special hearing on whether Salas should be kept in federal custody until his trial. Molzen ruled that Salas should be kept in jail due to the weight of the evidence against him, his history of violence and weapon use, and the possible length of his sentence, the records show.

Torrez stated that considering that Salas was accused in almost 50 armed robbery cases and even admitted to some of his crimes, his imprisonment proved the potential impact that this type of state-federal partnership could provide.

He also stressed the impact that arresting one Paul Salas could have on the number of armed and commercial robberies.

Before Torrez’s election in 2016, the DA’s office rarely sent any cases to the federal court system. However, U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez crafted an agreement to transfer federal-eligible cases to the federal court system. In addition, Anderson, the current U.S. attorney, further expanded the program, which still has very strict criteria.

Most of the time, the types of cases that are transferred to the federal court system involve felons in possession of weapons, the use or possession of weapons in connection with a violent or drug trafficking crime, and violent robberies.

Around 90% of the time, the penalties in the federal courts were tougher, stated Torrez. For example, a felon in possession of a firearm constitutes a fourth-degree felony under New Mexico law. This entails an 18-month maximum sentence according to state law, which means an offender can be out in nine months with good behavior.

On the other hand, in the federal system, considering the criminal history of the defendant, a felon with a firearm could face up to ten years in prison.

Torrez further went on to explain that when focusing on the most dangerous people, the transfer of cases to the federal system was probably the most effective way to get those people off the streets. He also stated that as long as the state system was unable to keep such people off the streets, they would continue with their policy of transfer. Anderson stated that New Mexico’s federal system has been able to handle the increased workload so far.

He said that they didn’t see the end of the policy, at least for now. However, Anderson hopes that they could reduce violence in the state enough so that those resources could be used somewhere else, but he considers that the path will be long and arduous, given the State of New Mexico.

Torrez claims that the DA’s Office can’t bring down violent crime without strong partnerships with federal and local law enforcement and the involvement of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. From his perspective, the people of Albuquerque do not care whether violent criminals are prosecuted in state or federal court. They just want safety.

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