The New Mexico Supreme Court this week reversed a lower court's dismissal of two indictments connected to the 2013 armed robbery of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in Taos.
The justices held that former Taos District Court Judge John Paternoster did not have the authority to quash the indictments on the basis that inadmissible evidence had been presented to a grand jury.
The unanimous decision reopened two pending cases against Taos County residents Isaac Martinez and Carla Casias, who were each charged with conspiracy to commit armed robbery and armed robbery after an unidentified gunman stole $110,000 in cash from an employee transporting a bank deposit in the parking lot of the cooperative on April 10, 2013.
In the months following the robbery, Taos Police Det. John Wentz submitted an affidavit that alleged Casias, who was working as a billing clerk at the cooperative at the time of the robbery, her daughter, Ashley Casias, and Martínez, her daughter's boyfriend, had conspired to commit the heist.
Police later arrested a fourth suspect, Christopher Sillas, who would be the only defendant convicted in 2015, for his role as the getaway driver.
Prior to the indictments of the other defendants, then 8th Judicial Deputy District Attorney Emilio Chavez, now an 8th Judicial District Court Judge, issued 11 subpoenas to access records of calls and text messages from the suspects' cellular phone providers without the approval of a judge or grand jury.
Largely based on evidence uncovered through the subpoenas, a grand jury indicted Carla Casias and Martínez on Aug. 8, 2013. The defense counsel protested the presentation of the cell phone records as evidence at the indictments, arguing they had been issued outside of a proper authority.
Paternoster ruled in April 2014 that Chavez had obtained the cell phone records illegally and dismissed charges against Casias and Martínez.
"The prosecutor had no reasonable basis in law for issuing the subpoenas and had no reasonable basis in law to present the evidence to the grand jury, and therefore acted in objective bad faith, and tainted the grand jury with this evidence," Paternoster said in 2014.
Charges against Ashley Casias were also dismissed, but a press release disseminated on Monday (April 23) from the Administrative Office of the Courts did not specify whether or not her charges would be refiled as a result of the supreme court decision.
The 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office challenged the decision through the New Mexico Court of Appeals, which certified the issue for resolution at the New Mexico Supreme Court.
While the Justices agreed the subpoenas were unlawful since they were "filed with the district court in a miscellaneous court docket, rather than a criminal or grand jury docket," they ruled on Monday that the presentation of said evidence did not warrant quashing the indictments.
In Monday's opinion, New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels cited nearly 100 years of judicial precedents, which affirm that a New Mexico state court cannot dismiss a grand jury indictment based on a review of evidence.
That history, he writes, began with State v. Chance, a 1923 case which specifically established that a New Mexico state court does not have the power to "determine whether or not it had sufficient or insufficient, legal or illegal, competent or incompetent evidence upon which to return an indictment."
If and when Casias' and Martinez's cases go to trial, however, the state supreme court also acknowledged that Taos District Court would then have the ability to prohibit the use of the unlawfully subpoenaed cell phone records.