By Aaron Stiles
At a recent ASNMSU-sponsored series detailing the intricacies of working in the various legal fields, mistrust and even fear of authorities were central themes professionals in the legal fields addressed and tried to dispel.
Speakers at the event included New Mexico’s attorney general, Hector Balderas, who said he grew up in public housing, and his mother was often afraid of authorities and government institutions. Balderas said many people in poor communities feel this way.
“So when I engage and work with public defenders and prosecutors and law enforcement officers and judges, I never forget that many times our clients will be afraid of the very justice system that is trying to protect them,” Balderas told attendees of the series in Hardman Jacobs Learning Center on March 3. “So I try to teach a lot of my own staff to be even more sensitive than just being a good lawyer.”
He said that a sense of justice is one of the most important things in the legal profession.
“What (law school) didn’t tell me is that your sense of justice, your passion to serve others is equally important and will determine the efforts you make in your community,” he said. “That truly is what determines whether a jury will trust you, whether another colleague or a victim will trust not only your legal expertise, but your sense of justice.”
Another speaker was Chief Jaime Montoya of the Las Cruces Police Department, who specifically wants to end the stigma that all cops are bad. This is achievable through community outreach, he says.
“Nothing upsets police officers more than a bad cop,” he said. “And labeling all cops as bad is like labeling all people as bad.”
He said the truth is only a small fraction of police officers ever have any sort of misconduct complaint against them.
Montoya said that about a year ago, he looked into his own department and found that in LCPD, only about 77 out of 150,000 complaints were against police officers.
Montoya said the best advice he gives to rookies is to listen to superiors to learn how to be a good law enforcement officer. Montoya said when an LCPD officer is accused of any kind of misconduct, Montoya opens a formal investigation immediately and if the officer is found to have operated with misconduct, the officer is fired.
“(Police misconduct) is detrimental to who we are,” he said. “(Policing) is (about) public trust, and if (an officer) violates that public trust, then I don’t want them.”
Another speaker in the series was Assistant Public Defender Ryan Byrd, who stressed the importance of the Public Defender’s Office in representing people who can’t afford to pay attorney fees when they go to court. These people are still Constitutionally entitled to legal representation, he said.
“I handle everything from drug cases to child abuse cases to murder cases,” he said.
New Mexico’s Bill of Rights, he said, gives many more rights to citizens than other states’, which is one reason he likes working in New Mexico.
One of his biggest challenges is working with families of someone involved in a criminal case. If there is a possibility of years of jail time, families can become worried especially if the person involved is the primary source of income in the home.
“You’re dealing with people’s worst days over and over and over again,” Byrd said.
Of particular concern to Byrd are drug charges, which, he says, the legal system does not handle well, that putting people in jail for drugs is not the answer.
“The main point of being a judge is to make decisions, and to make sure that people come away from that experience feeling like they were treated fairly,” he said.
The legal system in the United States is not perfect, Gonzales said, but it is one of the best systems of justice and fairness that can serve for other nations to model their own justice system after.
“(We) can take these problems and disputes and resolve them peacefully,” Gonzales said. “This is our system.”
Of all qualities a legal professional should have, Gonzales says, ethical behavior is the most important.