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Drunken Driver Free – Again

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ABQJournal Online » Drunken Driver Free – Again

Once again, prolific drunken driver John Paul Chavez has managed to beat the system.

A man who has at least seven DWI convictions going back to the 1980s – and who, in 2002, struck a female tourist and dragged her for five blocks under his pickup as he drove drunk through the Santa Fe Plaza – was as recently as last month facing more jail time from yet another DWI arrest in December.

Not anymore. The latest DWI case against Chavez has been dismissed because no one from the District Attorney’s Office showed up for a court hearing and prosecutors failed to provide evidence to his attorney.

Chavez – who has long benefited from paperwork deficiencies in the New Mexico criminal justice system and other loopholes – is now free and clear again.

“There’s no excuse for it,” said District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco. “You can’t sugarcoat it.”

Chavez, 51, was arrested for DWI on Dec. 11 after he admitted to a police officer who pulled him over for speeding that he had been drinking at a Cerrillos Road strip club. The next month, a Santa Fe County grand jury indicted Chavez on charges that included aggravated DWI.

On July 15, Chavez appeared before state District Court Judge Michael Vigil for what was supposed to be a routine court hearing. But the case was dropped altogether after defense attorney Val Whitley argued for dismissal. No prosecutor showed up for the hearing, and Whitley told the judge he had yet to receive evidence in the case from the DA’s Office.

An order signed by Judge Vigil granted Whitley’s motion to dismiss the case “for the state’s failure to enter their appearance and to provide any discovery whatsoever, since (Chavez’s) arraignment on Feb. 14, 2011.”

The case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning the DA’s Office cannot refile the charges.

Pacheco said that Chavez’s DWI fell through the cracks as a prosecutor who was handling it dealt with serious health issues. Charles Baldonado was a chief deputy district attorney at the time he took on Chavez’s case, but he’s since resigned from the DA’s Office because of poor health.

Apparently, after Baldonado left, nobody at the DA’s Office took over the Chavez case. So Whitley wasn’t getting information from prosecutors that he was legally required to receive and, ultimately, no one showed up for the July 15 hearing.

Pacheco on Wednesday made no excuses for what happened.

“I’m very upset and embarrassed by it,” Pacheco said. “I’ve been sick about this.”

She did say that her office is understaffed and that prosecutors have had to take on more and more cases.

“For whatever reason, as the fates would have it,” Pacheco said, “we didn’t pick up on John Paul Chavez.”

Prior cases

Chavez’s December case was not a low-profile DWI, and he’s been a regular on the police blotter and news pages.

In September 2002, when he was 42, Chavez was drunk behind the wheel of a GMC truck on the Santa Fe Plaza and struck Michael and Helen “Elly” Cote as the couple, visitors from Colorado, who were walking across Palace Avenue near the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Mrs. Cote was dragged five blocks by Chavez’s truck before she came free. The Cotes survived, but Mrs. Cote suffered serious injuries.

For that case, Chavez was sent to prison for 8 1/2 years. He was released early from the Department of Corrections in April 2009, having received “good time” sentencing-reductions while behind bars.

Before he ran over the Cotes on the Plaza, Chavez had seven DWI convictions, according to state Motor Vehicle Division Records. But he’d only spent 13 days in jail for all of them combined.

And paperwork problems with those prior cases plagued prosecutors in his most recent case – the one that has now been dismissed.

When the DA’s office was reviewing Chavez’s record DWIs after his arrest in December, prosecutors could only come up with the three prior convictions that could be used to enhance his sentence had he been convicted again.

Under law, in order for previous DWI convictions to be used as “priors” in a new case, there must be documentation showing the defendant had a lawyer or “knowingly and intelligently” waived the right to legal representation.

That kind of documentation is not always kept on file by courts or MVD, especially in older cases. MVD’s database can show that someone has multiple DWIs, but unless the proper paperwork exists, the information is useless when it comes to charging or sentencing a driver as a multiple DWI offender with prior convictions.

With just the three usable prior convictions, Chavez was facing up to 18 months behind bars for the December DWI.

Now, he’s free. He still doesn’t have a valid driver’s license, but that hasn’t stopped Chavez before – a DMV spokesman said in December that Chavez has never had a valid New Mexico driver’s license.

And another twist – or loophole – Chavez got to keep the Jeep he was driving when he was pulled over in Santa Fe in December despite the numerous prior drunken-driving arrests. The Jeep wasn’t taken by the city under Santa Fe’s ordinance calling for seizure of vehicles of multiple DWI offenders because Chavez was pulled over by a State Police officer, not a city officer.

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