DENVER – An investigation by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office found the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, and DA Alonzo Payne, violated the Colorado Crime Victim Rights Act, and for the first time in the act’s 30-year history, the attorney general is enforcing a district attorney's office to comply with it.
The Attorney General’s Office and 12h Judicial District Attorney’s Office have come to an agreement to bring in an independent monitor to oversee the DA’s Office and that it is complying with the VRA, Attorney General Phil Weiser announced Tuesday morning.
After the Crime Services Advisory Board received and reviewed in February eight complaints that Payne and his office were violating the VRA – not keeping crime victims apprised of movement in cases or complying with their rights afforded under the VRA – they referred the complaints to the governor’s office, which then referred them to Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office.
“This was a systemic failure to follow the law and systemic violations of the law,” Weiser said. “We were prepared to prove that in court if necessary, but because we were able to reach an enforceable agreement, that wasn’t necessary.”
Several of the victims who filed complaints have spoken with Denver7 Investigates over the past several months, alleging that the DA and his office were not telling them about plea deals in cases they or their family members were involved in, or were providing questionable plea agreements. The attorney general said Tuesday some victims even had their safety put at risk.
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Weiser said at a news conference Thursday announcing the agreement that it was “unprecedented” in state history that an attorney general had to step in to ensure a district attorney’s office was complying with the VRA and state Constitution.
His office found there was a pattern and practice at the DA’s Office of violating the VRA – the second time Weiser’s office has utilized its patterns-and-practices investigative authority during his time in office — the first being the investigation into the City of Aurora and its police and fire departments that led to a consent decree.
“Not only have I not seen this before, but in the entirety of the VRA in Colorado history, we’ve never gotten to this point before,” Weiser said, adding that the commission had attempted to take certain steps to remedy the violations, which were ineffective and led to the referral to Weiser’s office.
“My view is the office of the 12th Judicial District Attorney has serious work to do as overseen by a monitor. If that work doesn’t happen, we have mechanisms in place to address those failings, up to the most serious response of removing cases from the office and assigning them to other prosecutors, with funding, who we believe can do the job,” Weiser added.
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Under the agreement, an outside independent monitor will watch over the office, which will have to comply with the VRA and constitution. The agreement also puts in place new policies and procedures for the 12th Judicial District Attorney's Office, and mandates its employees undergo regular trainings and improve their communication with victims and others involved in cases.
The state will choose the independent monitor and it will be funded by the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, according to Weiser. The monitor will have full access to the office’s documents and personnel, according to the AG’s Office and the agreement.
The district attorney’s office will have to review and revise its VRA policies and create new procedures to be sure they are contacting victims in a timely manner.
The office will also have to put in place new mandatory training for employees to ensure compliance with those new policies and procedures, update its website to properly notify victims of their rights under the VRA, and meet at least every quarter with staff, law enforcement and others to better improve their communication about complying with the VRA and the cases in the judicial district.
The monitor will do reviews each quarter to track whether the DA’s Office is in compliance. If it is not, Weiser’s office can sue in civil court or seek a judge’s order enforcing the agreement’s provisions.
If the DA’s Office continues to violate the agreement, the state can transfer all VRA cases to prosecutors in another judicial district, who will be funded by the 12th Judicial District.
The agreement will be in place for at least three years if Payne remains district attorney. But a recall petition against him gathered enough valid signatures and was approved late last month.
Annie Orloff, a spokesperson for the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, said Tuesday that no one had filed a protest as of last Friday's 5 p.m. deadline.
She said that if five days pass from the deadline — which would be Wednesday — and Payne does not resign, the Secretary of State's Office will submit the certificate of sufficiency for the recall to the governor's office. Gov. Jared Polis will then have 24 hours to set the recall election date, Orloff said.
Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks told Denver7 Investigates the city was notified no protests were filed, and Mayor Ty Coleman said he had sent a letter to the governor's office asking for an expedited election window.
But in the event a new district attorney takes over before the end of Payne’s term, the agreement will be in place for six months after the date a new DA succeeds Payne.
Lani Welch was one of the first victims to file a complaint against Payne. She is a survivor of domestic violence and said back in May how the district attorney had disrespected her after her ex-fiancé was arrested for third-degree assault and stalking, but Payne agreed to a drastically reduced charge of stealing a phone.
“I’m very grateful for the work that the attorney general’s office has done,” she said in an interview Tuesday after Weiser’s announcement.
She called the independent monitor agreement a step forward, but still wants to see Payne recalled.
“I feel, as many other victims do, that Payne needs to be removed from office and possibly held criminally accountable for some of his actions,” Welch said.
Weiser said Payne did cooperate with the investigation, as did members of his team. Weiser said Payne agreed that the violations took place and that the monitor was needed and said Payne would sign the agreement.
“The exact duration will be determined by how long the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office takes to substantially comply with the requirements of the compliance agreement. The decree will be extended if the DA’s office is not in substantial compliance,” the Colorado Attorney General’s Office said in a news release.
“The lack of compliance in this case is deeply problematic and it happened in the face of prior efforts to do something about it, and requires us to have a system we're putting in place to ensure compliance,” Weiser said at the news conference. “…Our charge was not to evaluate why the failings happened, but instead to ask did they happen. Our conclusion is they did happen. Victims were not notified as required by law, and in some cases, were disrespected and treated rudely. Why that happened, we didn’t look into or render judgment. It happened, it violated the law, and it needs to be corrected.”
This is a developing news story that will be updated.