The municipal judge in Alamosa and Monte Vista has resigned after the American Civil Liberties Union alleged he had been violating people’s constitutional rights — including not allowing access to counsel and jailing people for being in debt, which is against state law.
Judge Daniel Powell worked part-time in both Alamosa and Monte Vista as both of the towns’ chief local judge. He told both city councils he will leave the jobs at the end of the year.
The ACLU alleged in a report that Powell routinely abused his power in Alamosa, an impoverished town in the San Luis Valley, by jailing people for days who aren’t public safety threats and not allowing people to go to rehabilitation for substance abuse if they had a court date.
Alamosa city officials say they were blindsided by report, but made recommendations to city council. They include appointing a Judicial Advisory Performance Board to monitor the local court and allowing the city prosecutor rearrange court dates if people have documented reasons for not being able to make it — including seeking treatment.
“We’re trying to be as transparent as possible. Council takes this very seriously,” said Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks. “We don’t want people to think we’re being defensive … We are making changes.”
Monte Vista City Manager Forrest Neuerburg posted on the city’s website that Powell resigned after being temporarily suspended by the town council.
“Council members recognized the seriousness of the allegations and voted to suspend Powell so the claims could be properly investigated,” Neuerburg wrote online. He did not return immediate calls for comment.
ACLU lawyers say they are happy the city was taking their report seriously.
“The city staff has already proposed a set of welcome reforms and improvements to current practices to address a number of the legal issues and additional concerns raised in the report,” a statement from the organization said.
Alamosa city officials say they didn’t agree with all of the ACLU’s findings and pointed out inconsistencies with their own data including that the judge had not issued any warrants for “failure to pay” court-assigned fines since January.
The county jail where municipal defendants are usually held is way overcrowded. Most days it brims at more than 200 percent capacity.
Alamosa County Sheriff Robert Jackson had been in disputes with Powell in the past for the number of municipal, non-dangerous defendants who were being housed there. At one point, Powell threatened Jackson with contempt of court, if he didn’t keep city defendants in the jail.
Jackson said after the ACLU report was released, officials began allowing municipal defendants out of the jail on personal recognizance bonds — which means they are let go without any money and a promise to return to court at a later date. He called that move helpful for the overcrowding.
Jackson said 92 percent of the people in jail were heroin or opioid abusers.
“We have a very, very tough situation here,” Jackson said.