A Durango man sentenced to two years in community corrections and 10 years of probation for running over two pedestrians while driving drunk was given a reduced sentence Thursday, but with a condition that may land him in jail in another state.
Around 2 a.m. Oct 16, 2016, Cruz Baca was driving a Toyota pickup when he failed to slow down for eight pedestrians in the crosswalk on College Drive and East Second Avenue, striking two.
Baca fled the scene, but police were able to locate him a few hours later. When contacted by authorities, he had bloodshot eyes and smelled of alcohol. His pickup, which matched witness descriptions, had front-end damage.
Baca initially denied to police he hit the pedestrians. During his four-day trial, however, his lawyer at the time conceded Baca was driving the vehicle. It came to light that he had spent the night drinking at 8th Avenue Tavern before getting behind the wheel.
A jury trial in June 2017 found Baca guilty, and he faced up to 12 years in prison on four counts: vehicular assault while driving drunk, leaving the scene of an accident, careless driving and misdemeanor assault. It marked Baca’s fourth DUI conviction, with three previous ones in New Mexico.
At Baca’s sentencing hearing in August 2017, District Judge William Herringer was conflicted: He wanted to send Baca to prison, but he felt it wouldn’t do anything to help rehabilitate him. At the same time, Herringer felt probation was too lenient of a punishment.
Herringer gave Baca the maximum possible sentence without sending him to prison: two years at community corrections and 10 years probation. During this time, Baca would be allowed to have work release so he could maintain a job, among other stipulations.
But recently, Baca and his public defender, Christian Izaguirre, filed a motion to appeal the sentence, asking for probation, a more lenient punishment.
At a court hearing Thursday, Izaguirre said Baca has done “everything he can humanly do to show he’s not a danger to society.” Since the incident, Izaguirre said, Baca has remained sober, maintained employment and led youth groups that help others with alcohol addiction.
Baca, for his part, told Herringer: “I do take my sobriety very, very seriously.” He said the main reason he was asking for a reduced sentence was to help care for his daughter.
Sean Murray, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, said that in the days leading up to Baca’s sentencing, he got to know him through a common acquaintance “in a family setting.” Murray said he saw the lengths Baca was going through to rehabilitate himself and that his “heart strings pulled” for Baca at the sentencing.
As a result, Murray told Herringer on Thursday that because of these emotions, he pushed for Baca to have probation when he should have pushed for him to go to jail.
“I let down the court, I let down (Durango Police Department) and I let down the community by asking for probation (at Baca’s original sentencing),” Murray said.
Murray said Thursday that the motion to place Baca on probation should be denied, despite his actions of volunteering, remaining sober and meeting his court-ordered requirements.
One of the victims, speaking Thursday, also said Baca should not receive a lesser sentence. She said doctors called it a miracle that she survived being hit by the pickup that night.
Herringer maintained Thursday that prison would not be a constructive punishment for Baca, but he also said probation would not be a fitting punishment for the crime.
Instead, Herringer proposed that Baca be placed on probation with a major condition: that he go back to Albuquerque where he still has a warrant for a DUI charge and settle that matter. Herringer said Baca may be placed in jail as a result, but that is for New Mexico to decide.
The victim told Herringer she is agreeable to the condition.
Baca also agreed, and Herringer amended his sentence.
Before the hearing ended, Baca requested to speak directly with the victim. Baca told her he was sorry, and that he was not allowed to apologize earlier at the direction of his attorneys.