Recall election for San Luis Valley District Attorney clears major hurdle, moves forward

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Blanca Peak, 14,351 feet, seen from the San Luis Valley on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.

Update 4:44 p.m. June 23, 2022.

A petition to recall District Attorney Alonzo Payne, from the 12th Judicial District in Colorado, has gained the required number of signatures to move forward, the Colorado Department of State announced Wednesday.

According to Colorado law, any eligible voter in the district has 15 days to file a protest with the Department of State. If no protest is successful, Gov. Jared Polis will set an election date.

The petition required 3,996 signatures, which is 25 percent of the votes cast in the previous election for Payne's district. Organizers of the recall gathered 5,974 signatures, of which 4,757 were considered valid after a line-by-line review by the department.

The elected district attorney in the San Luis Valley is under investigation by state Attorney General Phil Weiser for violating the Victim’s Rights Act after a state investigation found numerous instances of mistreatment of crime victims.

Over the past several months, the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice received multiple complaints filed against the office of Alonzo Payne, the 12th Judicial District attorney representing six counties in southern Colorado.

The Victim’s Rights Subcommittee under the state Department of Public Safety completed a review of four of the complaints and found all four were factual, which means the victims were not consulted or treated with fairness, respect and dignity, the committee said in a letter to Gov. Jared Polis earlier this week.

“They made us feel like the death of our mom doesn’t matter and that the man that killed her is a good guy and just made a simple mistake,” one redacted complaint said.

Alonzo Payne Campaign Website
Alonzo Payne, the 12th Judicial District attorney representing six counties in southern Colorado.

“I was getting 50 blocked calls a day from my ex, he changed his number two times to get around blocks on my phone,” another complaint said. “Today they called me and informed me they would be petitioning to drop the charges. They said that, despite having recorded and text message confessions, 911 call recordings, multiple witnesses to my injuries … they did not have enough to build a case on.”

Last year, after validating the first four complaints, state officials asked that the DA’s office complete training on victim empathy. 

But as of Dec. 17, 2021, the Victim’s Rights Subcommittee found that the DA’s office didn’t complete those requirements. So the state’s Crime Victim Services Board voted in January to refer the findings of non-compliance to Gov. Jared Polis’ office. Earlier this week, Polis’ office referred the case to state Attorney General Phil Weiser for investigation.

This is the first time in the 30-year history of the Victim’s Rights Act Subcommittee that the board has made such a referral.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Weiser said, “My office will work to ensure that the district attorney’s office fully complies with the law —  either by securing the district attorney’s agreement to a strong corrective plan or by seeking a court order that will require that office to follow the law.”

“Any solution we obtain will need to involve independent, effective and enforceable oversight with significant penalties for additional failure or non-compliance,” Weiser said. 

Payne, who was sworn into the job in January 2021, did not return an immediate call for comment at his office on Wednesday by CPR News. But he told the Alamosa News earlier this week that, “we have made staffing changes in our office and are working in coordination with the Colorado District Attorney’s Council to address all issues of noncompliance.” 

Tom Raynes, head of the Colorado District Attorney’s Council, said Wednesday, “We’ve been working with Alonzo and we hope to help his office to the extent we can.”

The Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center also submitted a complaint on Monday alleging repeated violations of crime victims’ rights. 

“Since District Attorney Payne’s election, RMvlc has received more calls than ever from victims in that jurisdiction,” said Victim Law Center Executive Director Emily Tofte Nestaval. “Mr. Payne and his office have engaged in a consistent and repeated practice of denying crime victims their constitutional and statutory rights.”