Ten months ago, Joleen Nez was accused of the crime of improper trash disposal in a southeast Albuquerque neighborhood. The petty charge ultimately cost Nez her life.
Nez, an unhoused Native American woman, was cited, released and issued a criminal summons for the petty misdemeanor of littering on public property by officer Preston Panana of the Albuquerque Police Department on April 16, 2020. The original complaint filed by Panana said that Nez was issued a civil citation for kicking over a cup and bowl at the intersection of Texas Street and Zuni Road and refusing to pick up and throw away the cup "after (Nez) was given several opportunities to pick up her litter."
On Jan. 30, 2021, Nez died in Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center custody.
Seven months after her initial detainment, Nez was brought to MDC for failing to appear in court (despite never receiving the summons to appear) for the original charge of littering. At 10:54 a.m. on Jan. 30, the failure to appear charge was dropped, and around 11:40 a.m. the MDC received a code call that Nez was unresponsive at her bunk after suffering an "episode" that led to a loss of consciousness. She was then resuscitated and brought to the University of New Mexico Hospital for treatment where she died, according to MDC spokesperson Julia Rivera.
The MDC website listed Nez as "released" on Jan. 31 after the paperwork for her release was processed post-mortem. According to Rivera, after Nez was transported to UNMH she was expected to return to MDC to finish the releasing process. While still in the physical custody of MDC at the hospital, Nez suffered "another episode" that proved to be fatal, according to Rivera.
"She was alive, breathing, conscious and speaking when she was at UNMH, so we hadn’t physically released her from custody yet because we were anticipating her coming back," Rivera said in a phone call with the Daily Lobo.
A Bernalillo County source, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said they received notice that Nez was placed on "medical watch" for substance use withdrawal when she was admitted to MDC. According to UNM Health Sciences spokesperson Alex Sanchez, Nez was admitted as an "in-custody death" at the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI).
The OMI is expected to release the finalized copy of the autopsy report citing the exact cause of Nez's death in six to 10 weeks.
After Nez's initial citation in April, her court summons was mailed to her listed address at the Albuquerque Indian Center, a local homeless resource center for urban Native Americans, but the summons was returned to the court on May 11. Nez was absent from the original bond arraignment eight days later on May 19. This sequence of events repeated, resulting in Nez missing a second hearing on June 3 and a warrant being issued for her arrest on June 4 for failure to appear in court.
Seven months later (on Jan. 29), a warrant was served and Nez was arrested and incarcerated at MDC. The following day on Jan. 30, the warrant was returned and the prosecutor filed a "nolle prosequi" — a legal practice where a prosecutor dismisses a case without prejudice. The reasoning for filing this particular nolle prosequi is unclear, as the assistant district attorney for the case, Pilar A. Borneo, was unwilling to provide comment.
The Daily Lobo confirmed through state court records that the order on the bench warrant issued for Nez's arrest was returned, and her administrative warrant fee of $100 was converted into her served jail time of two days at MDC.
The cause of death in the case of Nez still remains unknown.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story said Nez was arrested for the initial charge of littering with the charge being dropped months later. Nez was issued a civil citation in 2020 for littering, and assistant district attorney Pilar A. Borneo dropped the failure to appear charge before her death.
This is a developing story.
Gabriel Biadora is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gabrielbiadora
Shelby Kleinhans is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @BirdsNotReal99