Coronavirus outbreak a concern for jails

Coronavirus outbreak a concern for jails

From the Las Vegas Optic

Most businesses and some government offices have closed temporarily to help slow the spread of COVID-19, but closing isn’t an option for the state’s courts and jails.

The U.S. Constitution provides several rights to anyone charged with a crime, and the New Mexico Rules of Criminal Procedure further outline rights afforded to those arrested and accused of crimes in New Mexico. But as courts and county jails look for ways to reduce potential exposure to the coronavirus, it becomes increasingly difficult to find balance between protecting the public and maintaining the rights of those charged with crimes.

Brett Phelps, a defense attorney from Mora County, told the Optic the courts are doing a good job under difficult circumstances, but the situation isn’t without challenges. For instance, he recently assisted a client during a hearing that took place entirely by telephone. The process was frustrating at times, he said, but it also illustrated some potential problems.

“I think it raises some serious issues in regards to the constitutional right to confront your accuser,” Phelps said. “Everybody called in on the phone, and we’re supposed to cross-examine the witness … when they’re on a phone somewhere and you can’t see them, can’t judge their body language. It was frustrating, but I’m not sure exactly how else you handle it because we don’t want to delay those kinds of (hearings).”