Saturday, August 13, 2011

Jailing En Masse For Contempt Violated Due Process

Immediately after the conclusion a hearing on a motion to reduce sentence, a judge held 32 spectators in criminal contempt and sent them to jail. The contempt was imposed on all who were sitting in the east gallery of the courtroom.

The New Mexico Supreme Court held that the judge had violated the due process rights of the jailed spectators:

Respondent’s warnings of what he expected of the spectators lacked the clarity required
either by our caselaw or by the need to achieve courtroom control without resorting to contempt
sanctions. The hearing had recessed when Respondent countermanded the bailiff’s instruction
for the spectators to stand and told them to be seated. Respondent never told the spectators that
they could not speak. He certainly never effectively communicated to any of the spectators,
collectively or individually, that standing or speaking would result in contempt citations or jail.
His single reference to the possibility of contempt sanctions before ordering an entire group of
spectators to jail was when he yelled, “That’s enough—I’ll hold every one of you in contempt
and jail you all!” If he had simply stated that anyone who did not sit down or anyone who
continued talking would be jailed for contempt, he probably would have achieved the control
that he did just seconds later when he yelled, “You’ll all go? Okay, take them all. Go on, all
of you, go on to jail!” And if he had made reasonable efforts to identify the person or persons
who stated their willingness to go to jail, he could have avoided sweeping up the innocent with
the guilty.

The court concluded that the judge had abused his judicial power and order immediate relief:

Given the extraordinary request for immediate judicial relief presented to us in this case
by thirty-two people jailed indefinitely without any semblance of due process, for this Court to
have remained idle, waiting for routine appellate processes to have worked their course, would
have seriously compounded the ongoing grave injustice being committed by a court subject to
our superintending control. We therefore granted the requested emergency relief.

The Taos News reports that the judge has resigned. (Mike Frisch)

Judicial Ethics and the Courts | Permalink

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