MONTE VISTA—The worst kept secret in the Valley has been exposed. An ACLU investigation into municipal courts has revealed that Monte Vista and Alamosa courts have been a central focus for several years. Interim Municipal Judge Barbara Zollars attended the Thursday, Nov. 16 meeting of the Monte Vista City Council and reported her findings regarding the illegal court practices of previous municipal judge Dan Powell and the city of Monte Vista.
Zollars began by stating, “I am not here to blame anyone or cast any personal aspersions on anyone’s character. I am here to tell you where the Monte Vista Municipal Court was deficient and how I think you can improve it,” she said. She then discussed things that must legally be changed and her suggestions.
Zollars pointed out that the courts are not only under the rule of law of the municipal charter but also the Colorado Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. “It’s not like the olden days where the judge could do everything...I think in smaller towns things tend to get all mashed together and that’s when we start running into problems,” said Zollars.
“I have reviewed the ACLU report several times. I know there has been some controversy about the report that it wasn’t fair. A lot of the allegations made in the report are true. Alamosa and Monte Vista have been under investigation for several years. It was the worst kept secret in the Valley... People were well aware of the allegations and of the shortcomings of municipal court.”
Dan Powell was sworn into office for Monte Vista in July 2014 by Mayor Debbie Garcia. Powell was also the Alamosa municipal judge and a resident of Alamosa County. “Your municipal judge has to be a resident of Rio Grande County. That’s right in the Colorado rules of municipal code... That’s something you need to think about in terms of your next judge. The rules are pretty clear and pretty clean that the judge needs to be a resident of the county. They don’t have to be a resident of the city of Monte Vista unless there’s a city ordinance that says that but at the very least they have to be a resident of the county,” she said.
Zollars shared that the state of Colorado has made significant changes to the municipal courts. Beginning Jan. 1 jails must notify the city within 48 hours that someone is in custody based on a municipal warrant and they must be advised by a judge. “That’s something you folks are going to have to think about and probably pay for if you want to continue to issue warrants and put people in jail for municipal ordinance violations,” said Zollars.
Beginning July 1 anytime someone is picked up on an active municipal warrant the defendant has the right to an attorney. “That’s something the city is going to have to pay for. I know Mr. Gibbons has been kind enough to fill in... most cities have a list of private lawyers to provide defense work. Since you are not a state or county agency you don’t get the services of the state public defender. Monte Vista is going to have to pay for it. That’s something that needs to be in place... Right now if someone is picked up on a jailable offense they need to be advised that they have the right to counsel if it’s a jailable offense. In my review of case files I think that was lacking and that’s a problem,” she said.
“You have to properly advise people of their rights in order to take a guilty plea or not guilty plea. Unless you take jail off the table you are going to have to pay for a lawyer. I can tell you that when I appeared in the Monte Vista courts as a criminal defense lawyer you are easily looking at $750,000 and that’s not a jury trial... the main thing is the city court has to have procedures in place to guarantee due process and I think that’s where municipal court got a little lost because they didn’t have a lot of procedures in place. A person needs to get into court; they get arraigned; they get advised of the charges, the possible penalties, of their constitutional rights including their right to an attorney. “
Zollars continued to offer her assessment of the issues she has found in the Monte Vista Municipal Court as well as answering questions from the city councilors. These will reported in the continuation of this series in future editions of the Monte Vista Journal.