In a rare act of disciplining a district attorney for serial, office-wide misconduct, the Colorado Supreme Court’s Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel (OARC) has resolved an ethics investigation into Third Judicial District DA Frank Ruybalid by placing him on twenty-three months of probation, in what amounts to a plea bargain with a sitting chief prosecutor.
According to Denver Westworld,
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.
Colorado’s Third Judicial District covers two rural counties in the far south of the state, Las Animas and Huerfano, with a combined population of approximately 22,000. For an area this small, however, it has lately been generating a disproportionate amount of apparent official malfeasance. In its largest town, Trinidad, again from Denver Westworld,
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 [the] November feature “The Snitch Who Stole Christmas.”
The article referenced details an amazingly brazen scheme of railroading people for crimes they couldn’t possibly have committed. In one pair of cases, “[T]wo of the accused had the perfect alibi: They were in jail at the time they were supposedly selling drugs on the streets of Trinidad to the police’s informant.” Defense attorneys “discovered numerous misleading or false statements in the sworn affidavits submitted to obtain the arrest warrants.”
Trinidad district attorney Frank Ruybalid had reviewed the arrest requests and approved them, and a local judge had signed off on them as well. But what was presented there as fact was, in some cases, one lie piled on top of another, generated by an informant who had more than one motive for lying.
As it turns out, the extraordinary resolution of the ethics probe against Ruybalid doesn’t even involve the cases from this drug-sting debacle now being litigated by the ACLU. The agreement between OARC and DA Ruybalid, which you can read by scrolling down here, only covers misconduct prior to this, and even then, as Denver Westworld makes clear, it is an under-count of the cases involving alleged ethical violations against his office.
Nonetheless, a close reading of it provides a fascinating look into the day-to-day operations of a District Attorney’s office that systematically violates defendants’ constitutional rights through the withholding of exculpatory evidence and the on-going failure to train junior prosecutors regarding their basic duties toward those accused of crimes and to the court itself.
Over the span of thirty-five pages, the agreement describes one instance after the next of Ruybalid and his subordinates failing to inform defense counsel about ballistics tests, failing to turn over information regarding deals with jailhouse informants, failing to provide required disclosures about expert witnesses, and in almost every case failing to perform these duties in the face of defense attorneys’ written and oral requests for the very same information.
Taken as a whole, the document paints a picture that reaches past the individual cases we and other media most often write about–because they are what courts record–and gives us a glimpse of something much larger: the corruption of an entire system of criminal justice. Corruption, to be sure, is not a word you will find in the agreement. Indeed, the stipulation specifies that none of Ruybalid’s failures to supervise were intentional, and, as Denver Westworld reports,
[Ruybalid] 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 to off administrative assistants and leave one part-time prosecutor position vacant…blaming many of the dismissals [of indictments] on being short-staffed.
Even if we take Ruybalid at his word, which given his previous denials of any wrongdoing is itself a big stretch, what we are left with here is a portrait of a prosecutor’s office that seems to have trouble not violating the rights of the accused. Thus even if we leave the question of intent aside, what the citizens of the Third District are left with is a corrupt judicial function. They don’t just have a bad DA. They live in a broken system.
Remarkably, despite his now admitted ethical violations, and the fact that he is on disciplinary probation, Ruybalid remains in office. That OARC has acted to impose on-going monitoring of his case-load is certainly encouraging. That is has taken a multi-pronged approach to holding him accountable is also to be commended. But imagine yourself for a moment as one of those unlucky enough to be charged by him with a crime in Las Animas or Huerfano County, Colorado. Does a response even this robust to an ethics complaint make you feel any more certain you will be treated fairly?