Friday, July 1, 2022

A Snowed In Contempt

The New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed a criminal contempt conviction of a recalcitrant defense attorney but remanded for resentencing.

The criminal case began with a stop of a semi-truck driver from Texas

During a search of the defendant’s truck, officers discovered J.V., the 12-year-old daughter of the defendant’s girlfriend, along with a narcotic pain pill, two opened condoms, and a bottle of lubricant.

J.V. at first denied sexual contact

In two subsequent safe house interviews, however, J.V. alleged that the defendant had sex with her while traveling through New Mexico. J.V. then underwent a sexual assault exam, which revealed injuries consistent with her allegations. The defendant was arrested and charged with criminal sexual penetration of a minor, child abuse resulting in great bodily harm, and enticement of a child.

Charges had been pending for nearly 18 months when the attorney entered his appearance

Maestas and the state vigorously litigated the case over the next two years. Trial was set and continued twelve times in total by either the defendant or the state, for a variety of reasons, or due to complications relating to the COVID-19 pandemic that struck New Mexico in March 2020. We focus here on the final continuance granted by the district court, and the ensuing trial setting itself, as these are the events that led to Maestas’s contumacious conduct.

The defense theory

Maestas developed a defense theory that centered on discrediting the interview methods used to elicit the allegations J.V. made during her safe house interviews. Maestas retained Dr. Susan Cave, a clinical and forensic psychologist, as an expert witness who would provide testimony supporting the defense theory. The court qualified Dr. Cave as an expert witness after a Daubert hearing, and Dr. Cave’s expert testimony became a crucial part of the defendant’s defense.

Trial was scheduled and Maestas learned his expert was unavailable due to surgery; his continuance motion was denied

In response to that order, Maestas filed a motion on October 22—four days before trial—arguing that denial of the continuance violated the defendant’s due process rights. Maestas indicated that he intended to appear in court on the trial date and would inform the court that he could not provide effective assistance of counsel without Dr. Cave’s testimony.

Then, drum roll

One final event delayed the October 26 trial setting: on the evening of October 25, the judge and district court staff arrived at the county courthouse in Clayton and were promptly snowed in by a storm that closed the courthouse for three days, delaying trial until the morning of October 29. That morning, Maestas filed a twenty nine-page brief informing the court that he found himself in a dilemma: he was forced to choose between obstruction by disobeying the district court’s command that he participate in the trial of the defendant or to proceed without being able to vigorously advocate on behalf of the defendant given his inability to present otherwise admissible expert testimony as to Defendant’s theory of defense. Maestas’s choice in resolving that dilemma would become clear during the  morning’s proceedings.

He appeared but would not proceed to trial

Speaking directly to the district court judge, Maestas stated that he would not subject his client to ineffective assistance of counsel, a conviction, and a lengthy appeals process, and would instead refuse to proceed. He then asked the court to review the brief he filed on the morning of trial, and should the court find him in direct contempt, asked that he be jailed in Taos County so that he could receive visitors.

Hold the Taos

The court then sentenced Maestas to a $1,000 fine, court costs, 364 days imprisonment with 334 days suspended followed by unsupervised probation, with the term of incarceration to be served in Union County.

The sentence was stayed during the appeal.  

The court sustained the conviction

Maestas’s belief that he could not provide effective assistance of counsel does not relieve him of culpability in refusing to obey a court order. We see no abuse of discretion in the district court’s decision to hold Maestas in direct criminal contempt, nor do we view the evidence presented here as insufficient to support his conviction.

The sentence was, as they say, way harsh

Compared to reported contempt sentences imposed on New Mexico attorneys, the district court’s sentence in this case was undeniably harsh. Indeed, our review of New Mexico jurisprudence reveals no reported appellate decision affirming—or even considering—a contempt sanction against an attorney as severe as this one. The majority of reported decisions involve the imposition of no more than a monetary fine in circumstances where an attorney failed to comply with a district court’s instructions or rules of procedure.

The court remanded for resentencing and vacated a restitution order. (Mike Frisch)

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