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Arrests by reserve officer raise questions in Albuquerque

The city's reserve program has been suspended after David Young is found to have made arrests for prostitution. Defense attorneys are preparing to appeal some of those cases.

September 08, 2009|Nicholas Riccardi

ALBUQUERQUE — David Young started out working for the city in fleet maintenance. He ended up prowling Albuquerque's streets, arresting prostitutes and their clients for the Police Department's Special Investigations Division.

At no time, however, was Young actually a sworn police officer. A civilian employee of the department for 10 years, he worked as a volunteer reserve officer when he made his arrests. Under New Mexico law, arresting officers handle misdemeanor prosecutions in metropolitan court. Young appeared as the prosecuting agent in several cases.

Since news of Young's role surfaced in late August, the criminal justice system here has been thrown into turmoil. One prostitution case that he handled was dismissed before it went to trial, and defense attorneys are preparing to appeal nearly a dozen more.

The Police Department has suspended its reserve program and identified 46 other criminal cases that reserve officers handled, ranging from traffic tickets to domestic violence. Those other cases also may end up challenged in court.

"It's pretty wild," said Mary Han, a civil rights attorney tapped by the public defender's office to handle the cases involving Young. "If you or I were to go out and impersonate a police officer, we'd go to jail. . . . It's a real perversion of the legal system."

Police officials say Young, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, was acting with the blessing of the department -- and always with sworn officers close by. "This will end up being an attorney discussion and a ruling by attorneys," said police spokesman John Walsh, who described the issues involved as "technicalities."

The key question is: What makes someone a cop?

Young's attorney, John D'Amato, said that, like all of the department's 63 reserves, Young spent time at the local police academy -- more than 700 hours -- learning investigative procedure and other staples of law enforcement.

D'Amato added that, like full-time police officers, Young goes to the firing range every month to remain qualified to carry a firearm.

D'Amato said his client, who is employed by the department to help police set up electronic surveillance equipment, is "more trained and certified in more areas than most police officers are." Young joined the reserves six years ago.

New Mexico law refers to police officers as "salaried" law enforcement personnel. But Albuquerque police officials cite one provision that allows a chief to deputize any individual as an agent; they say the law could permit someone like Young to legally act as a fully sworn officer.

Although state law does not allow reserve officers to make arrests in traffic stops, they are allowed to make other arrests.

But since 2007, it has been required that reserve officers be accompanied at all times by a sworn police officer. At the time, a top Albuquerque police official warned reserves in the vice unit that they should not be acting alone. Young arrested 24 people after that warning, though police say he was under supervision.

The Albuquerque Journal, which broke the story, reported that Young was paid overtime during the arrests. Walsh said the payments may have been for his civilian side job setting up surveillance.

Police say they tapped Young to work undercover because the vice unit needs a constant supply of fresh faces to catch prostitutes and their clients. All undercover operations are tightly supervised, Walsh said. On his police reports, however, Young lists only himself as the arresting officer and does not list an assisting officer.

In many reports and complaints he filed with the court, Young also identifies himself as a police officer or detective. In a handful, he lists himself as a reserve officer. He is also listed as the contact for defendants who wish to delay their court appearance.

Han said Young negotiated plea deals in court and occasionally warned defendants about the sentences they could face if they did not admit to their crimes.

Han also noted that in several of Young's arrests, there is no record of the prostitution suspect asking for money for sex, the probable cause that would be required to prosecute the case.

In the case that was dismissed in August, for example, Young wrote that he drove up to a 45-year-old woman standing in a "high-prostitution area." She asked him if he was a cop and challenged him to touch her breast to prove he was not.

According to court records, Young did touch her. She then asked him to expose himself. "I did not expose myself, and she did not say anything anymore," Young wrote. "She was then taken into custody without incident."

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