ACLU Alleges Alamosa Judge Violates State Law, Constitutional Rights

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Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
Downtown Alamosa, which is the economic hub of the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado.
Photo: Downtown Alamosa in the San Luis Valley
Downtown Alamosa, which is the economic hub of the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado.

A part-time municipal judge in Alamosa frequently violates people’s constitutional rights and jails people for weeks for not being able to pay fines related to non-violent crimes, an American Civil Liberties Union report has found.

Judge Daniel Powell works six days a month as chief municipal judge for the city of Alamosa in southern Colorado. The city is among the poorest in the state, with 35 percent of people living below the poverty line.

Powell’s prolific use of the city jail for low-level crimes — like traffic offenses, petty theft under $100 and trespassing — has ballooned the jail’s population to 115 when it only has capacity for 48 people.

“The city is dedicated to all local and state laws … and any reference to the contrary the city takes very seriously,” said Heather Brooks, Alamosa city manager, in response to the report, which she said she just saw Thursday. “Our plan is to review the report and a plan to the city council, determine what they think is going on and if there needs to be any change.”

Alamosa County commissioners unanimously granted Alamosa Sheriff Robert Jackson the authority to reject inmates wanted by the Alamosa Municipal Court, but Judge Powell threatened the sheriff with contempt of court if he exercised that authority, the ACLU said.

In a one-year span ending in May 2017, 258 Alamosa municipal defendants spent an average of 13 days per person in the local jail, the report said. The county charged the city more than $200,000 to incarcerate local defendants, which was more than 65 percent of the court’s total budget.

“A person can be held in jail five days, 10 days, we have an example of someone in jail for 22 days and the only reason why they’re there is because they’re too poor to pay their bond,” said ACLU attorney Rebecca Wallace. “In Alamosa, we have multiple examples of people sitting in jail waiting to see Judge Powell.”

Municipal courts operate with little meaningful oversight and there is no independent public defender system for people who break city laws — which means much of people who end up in local court are shuttled through without legal advice, the ACLU says. This compares to the state court system, with judges appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, that also has independent public defenders who act as watchdogs, Wallace says.

Recent laws passed by the state legislature prohibit state and local judges from prisoning someone simply because they can’t pay a fee. Many local judges were requiring people who couldn’t pay a fine, or meet a payment schedule, to show up in court each time they can’t pay. Failure to do that would result in an another automatic arrest warrant.

Powell is in violation of the newly passed state law, the ACLU found.

In one August 2016 exchange with a defendant who said he couldn’t afford the fees in a three-month payment schedule, Powell said, “if you don’t make your payment, you’ll get a notice to come back to court and you can be resentenced and maybe sent to jail instead. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Alamosa resident Michele Silva was convicted of three traffic infractions and one petty theft charge between 2013 and 2015 and sentenced to pay fines and fees of $660. She appeared at payment review hearings 12 times and has paid $600 to the court.

Because she is impoverished, the ACLU said, she was unable to meet Powell’s payment deadlines and he issued a warrant for her arrest — even though the original offense was a non-jailable traffic infraction.

Silva spent 14 days in jail until Powell finally granted her bond.

Powell has not returned immediate phone calls or emails for comment. He is a personal injury lawyer in Alamosa and also a part-time judge in nearby Monte Vista.