These are not the best of times for the criminal justice system in Trinidad. The city and two of its police detectives are being sued by the ACLU of Colorado, which claims the detectives fabricated and misrepresented evidence in a 2013 drug investigation that led to the arrests of forty people -- a misbegotten operation involving fake drugs and unreliable informants that resulted in all forty cases being dismissed, as detailed in my November feature "The Snitch Who Stole Christmas." And now Third Judicial District Attorney Frank Ruybalid has settled a state ethics investigation of his office by admitting that he mishandled several other prosecutions that ended up being dismissed -- cases ranging from theft and drugs to sexual assault and second-degree murder.
Yesterday, the Colorado Supreme Court's Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel announced that it reached a settlement in its probe of complaints about Ruybalid's office, which dates back two years. Under the terms of the agreement, Ruybalid admitted to thirteen violations of the state's rules for professional conduct of attorneys. Presiding disciplinary judge William Lucero ordered that Ruybalid's law license be suspended for six months -- then suspended the suspension, provided that Ruybalid complete a 23-month period of probation.
The probation conditions include what the OARC describes as a "robust audit" of Ruybalid's office and ongoing monitoring and review of his caseload. Ruybalid will also be required to pay $23,000 in court costs and attend a one-day ethics course. The settlement agreement notes that private attorneys "have received sanctions more severe than a six-month stayed suspension" for conduct similar to Ruybalid's but concludes that probation is appropriate in his case. In exchange for his admission of misconduct, the office agreed to drop numerous other claims of violations by the DA in several other prosecutions.
The admissions include ignoring court orders and failing to turn over discovery to the defense in seven criminal prosecutions that were later voluntarily dismissed by Ruybalid or tossed by judges; in one, a theft defendant pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor but several felony charges were dropped. In nine other cases that were handled -- make that mishandled -- by inexperienced deputies, Ruybalid admitted that he failed to properly supervise his employees.
Prior to reaching a settlement in the ethics investigation, Ruybalid had denied any wrongdoing, blaming many of the dismissals on being short-staffed. He lamented that it was difficult to attract and retain qualified attorneys in economically troubled southern Colorado, and that the county commissioners slashed his budget by 19 percent this year, forcing him lay off administrative assistants and leave one part-time prosecutor position vacant.
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All of the cases in the OARC complaint predate the drug roundup of 2013 that's now the target of the ACLU lawsuit, but they're not entirely unrelated. Three of the cases that the OARC cites as involving violations by Ruybalid were drug cases in which key information about the confidential informant -- that theft charges against him had been dropped, that he was using heroin while working for the police, that law enforcement was paying his rent during the sting operation -- wasn't properly disclosed to the defense. Similar issues arose in the use of the informants in the 2013 sting.
One of the informants in the 2013 sting, Crystal Bachicha, pleaded guilty to one count of perjury and is scheduled to be sentenced next month. Ruybalid is serving his second term as district attorney, which ends at the end of 2016.
Read the full admission of misconduct below.