State officials order the San Luis Valley district attorney to improve how he treats crime victims

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Clouds and rain in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, July 1, 2022.

The San Luis Valley district attorney has agreed to dramatically improve how he and his staffers treat people after a state investigation found the office has repeatedly failed to treat people with respect, including repeatedly yelling, belittling and ignoring crime victims.

The agreement between Alonzo Payne and Attorney General Phil Weiser, announced Tuesday, requires Payne’s office to create policies around how to treat victims of crime and families of victims, including procedures for communication. 

It also requires the office to agree to an independent monitor, who will make sure certain timelines are met for improving the office. 

The investigation found the office had failed to communicate with victims, to consult with them about critical case developments, or to treat them with dignity, according to state documents.

Weiser’s office said they will take the district attorney or the office to court to enforce the agreement, and the timelines, if the office doesn’t comply. Weiser also said he would forcibly remove victim’s rights cases from the office and dole them out to other DAs, if he had to.

“This is not something that is voluntary or suggested,” he said. “This is a forcible agreement.”

The investigation into the San Luis Valley’s office was originally launched earlier this year.

The Crime Victim Services Advisory Board had reviewed eight complaints and found Payne had violated the Victim’s Rights Act. 

That included multiple accounts from victims about how the office treated family members.

“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 complaint said.

“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.”

After the victim's rights board validated the first four complaints, it attempted to compel Payne and his staffers to do some training, but that wasn’t completed, so they referred the matter to the governor’s office. Gov. Jared Polis referred it to Weiser in February.

Meanwhile, a petition to try to remove Payne from office garnered enough signatures, and his recall election is ongoing in the San Luis Valley.

Weiser said this type of investigation into a sitting DA is unprecedented in Colorado.

“When you have a loved one that is harmed or potentially killed, when you suffer, as a victim of a crime, the idea of our justice system is to repair a breach in our society,” Weiser said. “Your rights under the Victim Rights Act are to be apprised of the proceedings that are happening. To have a case dismissed before you’re ever consulted leads you, as a victim, to potentially be retraumatized.”

Payne did not return an immediate call or email for comment. The agreement binds him for three years. If a new district attorney takes over, that person is bound to the agreement for six months.