ACLU Report Highlights Abusive and Unconstitutional Practices in Colorado City Courts

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DENVER – Colorado’s more than 200 municipal courts operate without meaningful accountability or oversight, and one court in particular — the Alamosa Municipal Court— systematically violates the constitutional rights of its mainly impoverished criminal defendants, according to a report released today by the ACLU of Colorado.

Justice Derailed: A case study of abusive and unconstitutional practices in Colorado city courts is based on a multi-year ACLU investigation which revealed that, despite a bipartisan reform effort at the state legislature, many municipal courts persistently ignore constitutional standards and state law and continue to employ practices that punish defendants for their poverty.

The report finds: “While some Colorado municipal judges are actively working to improve the quality and fairness of their courts, others run their courtroom like a personal fiefdom, trampling on the rights of criminal defendants – especially those living in poverty – with impunity.”

“Colorado’s city courts primarily handle our state’s lowest-level offenses, most of which are intimately tied to poverty and addiction,” said ACLU of Colorado Policy Counsel Rebecca Wallace. “These courts are often the first contact individuals have with the criminal justice system. Yet, they operate without meaningful oversight, in the shadows of state law and the Constitution. This lack of oversight can and does pave the way for gross civil liberties violations.

According to Justice Derailed, the Alamosa Municipal Court, under the sole leadership of Judge Daniel Powell, “stands out among Colorado municipal courts for the frequency and seriousness of constitutional abuses, the lack of respect for individuals who appear before the court, the striking difference in treatment between impoverished defendants and those with means, and the sense of fundamental injustice that permeates many court proceedings.”

Using transcripts, courtroom audio, and case summaries, the report provides numerous examples of Judge Powell issuing unnecessary arrest warrants, allowing defendants to languish in jail for days or even weeks for low-level offenses, denying counsel to indigent defendants, imposing fines that are vastly disproportionate to the crime, and using jail and the threat of jail to collect money from defendants who cannot afford to pay, in violation of state law.

“Judge Powell is operating a two-tiered system in which defendants are punished for their poverty. Those with means might only appear once in court and pay their debt, while those who lack financial resources face a cruel form of injustice,” said ACLU of Colorado Research and Policy Associate Becca Curry, who coauthored the report. “We saw cases where a person had received a simple traffic infraction or was accused of shoplifting less than two dollars’ worth of food, and just because they could not pay their court debt were trapped for years in a cycle of debt and incarceration.”

More than 35 percent of Alamosa’s 10,000 residents live below the poverty line. Like many rural communities, the southwestern Colorado city is embroiled in an opioid crisis. Rather than using his position to connect addicts to services, Judge Powell “vilifies and blames people with addiction” and often issues arrest warrants for individuals that he knows cannot attend court proceedings because they are in voluntary drug rehab programs, according to the report.

The Alamosa Municipal Court, through its practice of issuing long sentences for minor offenses, is also a primary driver of overcrowding at the Alamosa County Jail, which is currently at more than double its capacity. In 2016, 90 percent of the 475 arrest warrants issued by the court were for low-level nonviolent offenses.

“While Alamosa provides a comprehensive display of all that can go wrong when a local court has too much power and too little accountability, these abuses are present in many municipal courts throughout the state,” said Wallace. “The legislature and the Colorado Supreme Court must take action to ensure that all of our municipal courts are transparent, accountable, and just.”

Justice Derailed provides a set of recommendations for the Alamosa Municipal Court to bring its court into compliance with constitutional standards and state law, as well as recommendations for the state legislature to establish reporting requirements, incentivize municipalities to establish an independent public defender system, establish written ability-to-pay assessment criteria, require courts to individualize sentences to fit the crime and the defendant’s ability to pay, and create a statewide study group to study municipal court practices and make further recommendations to address injustices in the municipal courts.

Read the ACLU report: https://aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/JUSTICE-DERAILED-web.pdf

This press release can be found here: https://aclu-co.org/aclu-report-highlights-abusive-unconstitutional-practices-colorado-city-courts/

The ACLU of Colorado is the state’s oldest civil rights organization, protecting and defending the civil rights of all Coloradans through litigation, education and advocacy.

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