HUERFANO COUNTY, Colo. (KRDO) -- The Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office was found in contempt of court after failing to provide evidence to the 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office in a timely manner, as ordered by the district court.
Colorado State Rule 16 requires the prosecution to provide evidence to the defense within mandated timeframes to ensure a fair trial.
According to the court documents, 3rd Judicial District Attorney Henry Solano claimed he couldn’t hand over case evidence to the defense, because he didn’t have the evidence from the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office. He said this was an ongoing problem since he took office in 2018.
This led to dozens of felony cases being dismissed. In one instance, a repeat offender with drug 2 felony charges walked free because the alleged drugs in the case weren’t sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations for testing. Solano said the suspect could have been sentenced to 50 years in prison. However, the DA’s office had to dismiss the case because it didn’t have the test results which need to be provided to the defense 35 days before trial.
“We got to a point where very serious high-level drug cases were having to be dismissed,” Solano said.
In December 2021, the court entered a preliminary injunction against the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office due to concerns with evidence being provided late to the DA’s office.
However, data compiled by the DA’s office shows the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office barely improved after the preliminary injunction.
Documents from the contempt of court order explained the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office provided late evidence in 23 cases or 31% of the time. This is a slight improvement from the 39.5% rate before the preliminary injunction.
Solano said other law enforcement agencies in the 3rd Judicial District fail to comply with discovery requirements about 8% of the time, which he said is defensible. However, the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office fails to comply 23% of the time. In court documents, Huerfano County Sheriff Bruce Newman “acknowledged that a rate of 20 to 25% is not acceptable.”
“Priorities haven't been set, procedures haven't been written, training hasn't been given,” Solano said of the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office. “That needs to be a focus.”
However, Stan Garnett, the attorney representing the Huerfano County Sheriff Bruce Newman said those numbers are skewed.
"When you actually look at the records, they actually show their work for our county is pretty close to the same average of mistake as everybody else. There was a period of time where the average was around 20%, and Sheriff Newman is committed to getting that lower."
Since the preliminary injunction, the DA’s office had to dismiss 13 cases. Of those 13 cases, five were dismissed because the sheriff failed to send evidence to the CBI for testing, according to court documents.
Garnett claims the evidence violations weren't the reason cases were dismissed.
"many of those cases have been dismissed because the district attorney, Solano, for whatever reason, made the decision to dismiss the cases. And they had nothing to do with discovery."
Because the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office failed to improve its discovery violations after the preliminary injunction, the agency was found in contempt of court in April. Now the court is deciding whether to implement a permanent injunction.
Garnett claimed the lawsuit filed by Solano is a personal dispute. Solano disagrees.
“It's not whether I like or dislike them, it's are they doing the job? Am I doing the job or is my staff doing the job? That's what's at issue here, not personality disputes, not whether we were friends or not,” Solano said.
In a closing argument against a permanent injunction, Garnett said Rule 16 doesn’t apply to law enforcement.
“Rule 16 of the Criminal Procedure applies to lawyers, public defenders, criminal defense lawyers who appear in court, not to the related agencies like the sheriff's office," Garnett said.
Garnett argues a permanent injunction is unnecessary, as the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office is already required to comply with the court’s contempt order, which includes a handful of remedial sanctions.
The Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office is required to provide documentation to the court of written procedures and policies related to “timely production of mandatory discovery,” establish and implement tracking and monitoring systems for Rule 16, and documentation of training.
"The last thing that was needed here was a lawsuit," Garnett said. "There's never been a sheriff that doesn't want to comply with discovery and other procedures. He's doing the best that he can."
The 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office are waiting on the court's ruling for a permanent injunction related to the evidence violations.
“I will hold anyone accountable, whether it's myself within the office or law enforcement, to comply with those fundamental basic requirements,” Solano said.
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