DA weighs in on criminalizing threats of mass violence


November 24, 2019

Whether it comes in person, on a phone call, through a text or in a social media post, the threat of mass violence can create fear and disruption.

Clovis residents were made keenly aware of such following the 2017 Clovis library shooting.

District Attorney Andrea Reeb said the aftermath of the deadly incident saw an overwhelming number of threats to institutions across the city that put extra strain on an already nervous public.

Now prosecutors from around the state have begun a legislative push to make threats of mass violence a more serious crime. They’re also looking to increase penalties for those that follow through on a threat with a firearm.

“After the library shooting, we had so many threats coming in that people were going to shoot up a school or do this or that,” Reeb said. “When we got these threats, we really didn’t have a statute to prosecute them under.

“This (proposal) makes it a fourth-degree felony and can require restitution for say a school or business that had to shut down. They’d have to pay the costs.”

Reeb has been involved with the two-part effort spearheaded by 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez to criminalize threats of mass violence and increase penalties for violent crimes involving firearms.

Defense attorneys, including Margaret Strickland, former president of the Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association, have countered the push by saying that longer sentences do not deter crimes and investing more into preventative measures would be a better use of state resources.

The New Mexico District Attorney’s Association sent a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan on Tuesday asking that the issue be addressed during the 2020 legislative session.

A draft of the proposed bill reads that a “criminal threat” would be a fourth-degree felony and would consist of “a statement or other form of expression communicating an intent to inflict unlawful physical injury against a person, to cause damage to property of another or to commit any other unlawful act of violence.”

This would include threats directed at pre-schools, grade schools, institutions for higher learning, occupied dwellings, places of business, public buildings, places of assembly and vehicles of public transportation.

The bill would require financial reimbursement if a threat causes an evacuation, closure or lockdown.

Reeb said that as it stands, making threats of mass violence are usually only a misdemeanor and even when threats are carried out she and other district attorneys find the tools available to issue punishment insufficient.

“I 100 percent support it. We don’t have anything right now other than a petty misdemeanor statute called ‘inference with the educational process,’” Reeb said. “If someone calls a school and the school had to stop, all they can be charged with is a petty misdemeanor.”

Reeb added that she and many other attorneys believe when crimes involving a firearm are prosecuted, current statutes don’t go far enough when considering the circumstances.

Today, a crime committed with a deadly weapon other than a firearm can result in a three-year sentence and be increased to a four-year sentence with a gun. The proposed legislation would increase the sentence for crimes involving a gun to six years and up to nine years if the gun is fired and injures a person.

“It’s giving us prosecutors tools to deal with these threats and greatly enhances the penalties on those that follow through,” Reeb said.

Many are wondering how such legislation would affect underage offenders, which are common when it comes to threats toward schools. According to Reeb, these offenders would be treated with similar severity, but their records would be sealed upon reaching adulthood as most other juvenile crimes are, giving them a clean slate.

“As a juvenile, even if they do it as a prank, as a fourth-degree felony, it won’t change the fact that juveniles are in a rehabilitative system,” Reeb said.

As for minors needing to pay restitution, Reeb said it’s possible they’ll be required to find a job and pay for the cost via monthly installments as part of their parole arrangement with the Juvenile Justice System, similarly to how juvenile cases involve theft or destruction of property are dealt with.

Reeb also said there might be grounds for a suit against parents in some cases, but ultimately the responsibility would likely fall solely on the offender.

The Albuquerque Journal contributed to this report.


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