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District judge effectively removes lower court judge from setting bail in felony-level cases

Anne Woods faced criticism for releasing criminal defendants on low bond amounts
Anne Woods is sworn in as a La Plata County Court judge by Jeffrey R. Wilson, chief judge of the 6th Judicial District, on Oct. 6, 2020, in the La Plata County Courthouse. Before becoming a judge, Woods worked as a senior deputy public defender for the state of Colorado, a position she held since 2015. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

A La Plata County judge who has garnered attention for granting low bail amounts in criminal cases has effectively been removed from setting bail in future felony-level cases.

An administrative order issued Aug. 2 by 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson reassigns felony-level advisement hearings to other judges and omits La Plata County Judge Anne Woods from overseeing those hearings. The administrative order was not widely circulated, and the The Durango Herald did not learn of the order until several months after it was issued.

Before the order, it was common for initial advisement hearings to be heard in Woods’ courtroom.

Bail is often set during advisement hearings, in which criminal defendants are advised of the possible charges and penalties they face. By reassigning felony advisement hearings to other judges, Woods no longer has the opportunity to set bail in serious criminal cases.

Woods has not been bashful about her “progressive” jurisprudence. She tends to emphasize rehabilitation over punishment when handing down sentences. But she has also raised eyebrows for issuing what some perceive as generous bail conditions – sometimes at the risk of victims or the community at large.

In one example, Woods granted a personal recognizance bond to Amanda Lembach, who was arrested on suspicion of setting a barn on fire that caused about $125,000 in damage in October 2020 northwest of Bayfield. A personal recognizance bond allows criminal defendants to go free without paying anything, so long as they follow court orders and show up for scheduled court hearings.

Lembach had a criminal history and was known to suffer from mental health issues. The District Attorney’s Office requested a $50,000 bond.

About a week after her release, Lembach was arrested on suspicion of retaliating against a witness and leading police on a high-speed chase. A different judge set her bail at $100,000.

Woods did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

Judge Wilson also declined to comment for this story, but he forwarded The Durango Herald’s request for an interview to Eric Hogue, court executive for the 6th Judicial District.

Hogue said Wilson’s order was issued for a few different reasons, including:

  • It was an early attempt to prepare for upcoming legislation that reduces a significant number of felony charges to misdemeanors.
  • It allows the District Court to set bail amounts in cases that are likely to be resolved in District Court.
  • It shifts some of the case load to the part-time magistrate, which helps with case management.

Hogue declined to comment about the order effectively removing Judge Woods from setting bail in felony-level cases.

District Attorney Christian Champagne said prosecutors have two goals in mind when arguing for bail: community safety and ensuring defendants return to complete court proceedings.

“The court must make difficult choices regarding bond, and while the court does not always grant our request, we respect its final decisions,” he said in an email to the Herald.

Woods, who was 33 at the time, was appointed in September 2020 by Gov. Jared Polis to serve as La Plata County judge. Before joining the bench, she worked as a Colorado public defender based in Durango, a position she held since 2015. Before that, she earned her law degree from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law in 2015.

shane@durangoherald.com

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