Citing a lack of sufficient funding and staff, Third Judicial District Attorney Henry Solano wrote that he would soon have to start dismissing some cases in Huerfano County, which, along with Las Animas County, constitutes the Third Judicial District. In a letter to Huerfano County residents dated Tuesday, July 9, DA Solano wrote that his decision “is required under the ethical guidelines in order to appropriately handle cases based on an appropriate caseload per attorney, and sufficient support staff to assist with the prosecutions.”
Noting that the current appropriation for the county only supported one prosecutor and one staff person, plus the portion of Solano’s time needed to directly prosecute Huerfano County cases, he noted that more and more of his time was being taken up by the Huerfano County cases. “Since January 2018, I have handled the full felony District Court caseload in Huerfano County, working 70 – 80 hours per week. A Deputy District Attorney handled the County Court Docket. Since 2017, my first year in office, the Huerfano County Court docket, including misdemeanors and traffic, has remained at around 880 cases per year, plus those that carry over from the prior year.
“In 2017 there were 163 Huerfano County felony District Court cases. In 2018, I handled 284 new Huerfano County felony District Court cases, plus those that carried over from 2017, at least 30 – 40 cases a year. That is a 175 percent increase of felony cases without any additional funding, including any new staff. The number of cases for prosecution in 2019 has continued to grow. In fact, until two weeks ago, the felony cases filed in Huerfano County were ahead of Las Animas County, which has twice the population. That has never happened before. There are not only more cases, they are higher level and more complex than before. By the end of 2019, there will be between 320 and 340 new Huerfano County felony District Court cases. This would double the number from 2017. The County Court misdemeanor and traffic cases will still be around 880 for 2019.”
He noted that funding and staffing levels in Huerfano County had remained at the same levels as in 2017, “with that being below the amount necessary then.” The actual level of funding for the new level of felony cases required at least two additional prosecutors and two additional support staff people. Huerfano County commissioners had rejected his request to place the 1A ballot initiative on the November 2019 ballot in order to provide additional funding for the DA’s Office for Huerfano County prosecutions. With his request rejected and no new funding apparently in sight to handle the expanded filings, “I have no other choice but to dismiss prosecutable cases, citing the lack of funding in Huerfano County. This is the only way to appropriately, professionally and ethically handle the situation.
“The simple analogy is like the rancher who only has enough feed for half his herd. At some point, he has to sell off half his herd in order to appropriately handle the rest, The first adjustment I will make is to only handle more serious County Court cases such as DUIO, traffic accidents involving major injury or death, assaults and domestic violence. All others will be dismissed, citing insufficient funding.
“This will allow the office to focus on the felony cases in Huerfano County. However, even then, felony cases will need to be dismissed, at first limited to non-violent felonies. This will be necessary in order to stay within the appropriate caseload level, as required to properly handle cases under the ethical and professional rules applicable to licenses attorneys. Overall, there will be a significant number of cases dismissed. This office will not be subject to Colorado Supreme Court disciplinary action, as has happened in the past.”
Solano wrote that the dismissals would not be because the limited number of people on staff didn’t have the appropriate skills and talent to properly prosecute the County Court and District Court criminal cases. He wrote that his office had the skilled people needed to do the job. The dismissals would occur solely because the office had insufficient staffing due to inadequate funding. The number of prosecutions handled would be directly tied to the funding provided to the DA’s Office in Huerfano County. “Unfortunately, cases over that level will be dismissed. That will diminish public safety, but through no fault of the DA’s Office. The responsibility is with others.”
It’s not the first fight over funding at the DA’s Office. After Las Animas County voters approved their own version of Referendum 1A in the Nov. 7, 2017 election to provide additional financial support in prosecuting serious crimes in the Third Judicial District, the Las Animas County Board of Commissioners apparently felt justified in appropriating any funds above the $580,000 estimate of revenues expected to be generated by the passage of the referendum. Solano filed suit against the Board and won a recent court victory in Third District Court, with the court ruling on June 25, 2019 that “the revenues generated pursuant to Referendum 1A, including those up to and above the estimate of $580,000, shall immediately be available for appropriation and should first be dedicated to meet the necessary expenses of the DA’s Office.”
Solano wrote in a Wednesday, July 10 phone call about his office’s ongoing efforts to prosecute crime in the Third Judicial District. “We at the District Attorney’s Office have worked very hard and shown results with limited resources. Those most familiar with our work in the courts can confirm this. The performance questions of the past are long gone notwithstanding being underfunded. In Huerfano County we have done this through extraordinary effort but we cannot continue to do twice the work without support and resources. More defendants are under court supervision or sent to prison than before. We must now prioritize the cases we are able to handle. Dismissing cases is not what I want and why for two and a half years I have spent 70-80 hours per week on the cases we have. However, with no relief in sight it is what I am required to do.”