Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks at a news conference July 12, 2022, at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)
An embattled San Luis Valley district attorney will be required to retain an outside monitor, adopt new policies and implement mandatory training for his office following a state investigation that turned up a pattern of Victim Rights Act violations, officials said Tuesday.
“Our action today will work to ensure that the law will be followed and that in the future, victims will be treated with respect,” Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said at a news conference announcing a new agreement between his office and that of 12th Judicial District Attorney Alonzo Payne.
An investigation by the Colorado Department of Law found that victims of crimes under Payne’s jurisdiction had not been updated on the status of cases as required under state law, putting some victims’ safety at risk.
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As part of the three-year, enforceable agreement announced Tuesday, Weiser’s office will appoint an outside monitor to oversee improvements to how crime victims are communicated with in the 12th Judicial District.
“This monitor will have full access to all the operations of the office (and) will ensure that the policy regarding how victims are treated is reviewed and revised to thereby follow the law,” Weiser said.
While running for district attorney, Payne, a Democrat, promised to address the “criminalization of poverty and attempts to substitute incarceration for mental health and substance abuse treatment,” according to his campaign website, which noted that the San Luis Valley had the “highest incarceration rate in Colorado.” But soon after taking office in 2021, Payne came under fire for his alleged treatment of crime victims.
The Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center, a nonprofit firm providing free legal services, submitted a formal complaint about Payne to Weiser’s office on Feb. 9. The nonprofit asked the attorney general to conduct an investigation into what it called the “deliberate indifference and pattern of repeated violations of crime victims’ rights in the 12th Judicial District” by Payne and his office.
The Victim Rights Act requires prosecutors to keep victims informed about their cases and to let them provide input during certain court proceedings, such as sentencing hearings. It also gives victims “the right to be treated with fairness, respect, and dignity, and to be free from intimidation, harassment, or abuse throughout the criminal justice process.”
Colorado’s Crime Victim Services Advisory Board, which falls under the Department of Public Safety, referred its own complaint about Payne to Gov. Jared Polis on Feb. 14. The board requested that Weiser take legal action against the 12th Judicial District in order to bring it into compliance with the Victim Rights Act. In a Feb. 16 statement, the Department of Public Safety noted that this was the subcommittee’s first such referral in the 30-year history of the Victim Rights Act.
Some San Luis Valley voters want Payne out of office before his term ends in 2025. On May 26, the Colorado secretary of state’s office announced that the proponents of an effort to remove Payne from office had submitted enough valid signatures to force a recall election.
Weiser said the agreement will remain in place for at least three years if Payne stays in office. If Payne is recalled or otherwise replaced, the agreement would remain for at least six months after that.
If the district attorney or his replacement violates the agreement, the state could remove cases that fall under the Victim Rights Act — such as murder, assault, menacing and kidnapping — from the purview of the 12th Judicial District and have them prosecuted elsewhere.
The Victim Rights Act gives the state attorney general the authority to enforce its provisions, though enforcement has never before been required, Weiser said. In its probe of the 12th Judicial District, the attorney general’s office also exercised the power granted by a 2020 state law to investigate patterns and practices of misconduct. The same law allowed for a state investigation of racial bias and excessive force within the Aurora Police Department.
Payne did not immediately return a request for comment from Colorado Newsline.
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