- Suspect: Maroquez Clah
- Victim: Darrell Chavez, 22
- Charges: Involuntary manslaughter
- Date of incident: Aug. 30, 2019
- Type of incident: DWI crash
- Status: Sentenced; Plea without a deal (maximum 8 years)
- Sentence: Just over 3 years prison (37 months) followed by 3 years supervised release
- Investigating Agency: FBI
- Location: Mile Marker 2, Navajo Route 13 (Indian Services Route 13) Mitten Rock, NM
- County: San Juan
- Suspect race: Native American
- Victim race: Native American
- Federal district case number: 19-cr-4447
- Search warrant case number: 19-mr-01054
- Prosecutor: Novaline Wilson
- Prosecuting agency: U.S. Attorney’s Office
- Defense attorney: Emily Carey
- Pre-trial detention judge: Magistrate Judge Paul Briones
- Plea judge: Magistrate Judge John Robbenhaar
- Sentencing judge: District Judge Kea Riggs
On Aug. 30, 2019, Maroquez Clah, of Red Valley, Arizona, allegedly killed Darrell Chavez, 22, an enrolled Navajo Nation man when he lost control of his truck and rolled it on Navajo Route 13/Indian Services Route 13 near Mitten Rock, New Mexico, within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation reservation, in San Juan county. Chavez is only identified in court records by the initials D.C. and the year of birth of 1997. Clah is also an enrolled Navajo Nation member.
A federal grand jury indicted him on Nov. 25, 2019 and he was arrested on February 14, 2020, before being released a week later to a halfway house. He has since been released to his family in Red Vallely, Ariz.
The case is pending.
Clah told federal investigators, while in the hospital, he had been drinking alcohol throughout the day prior to driving from Farmington to his home in Red Valley, Arizona, in a 2007 Ford F-150 truck.
“Clah recalled John Doe being a passenger of his vehicle at some point during the drive,” Roundy wrote. “Clah admitted to drinking vodka approximately six hours prior to driving his vehicle home and remembered losing control of the vehicle while driving approximately 70 miles per hour before the vehicle rolled several times.”
According to Clah’s hospital records from his treatment after the crash, his blood-alcohol content was 0.258, over three times the legal limit of 0.08.
It is not clear how the agents obtained the medical records. The only unsealed search warrant for the case, between the time of the crash and Sept. 4, 2019, is Roundy’s.
Clah suffered a broken leg and “other injuries,” Roundy wrote.
Roundy wrote he wanted to search the truck for physical evidence of alcohol consumption, including bottles, receipts and cans, as well as take pictures of the truck.
Magistrate judge denies move request during coronavirus pandemic
On April 1, federal Magistrate Judge Paul Briones denied Clah’s request to move from a halfway house in Albuquerque to his parents’ home in Red Valley, filed March 23. Briones did not have a hearing and instead relied on the emergency motion filed by Clah’s attorney, Emily Carey, and the opposition filed under seal by prosecutor Novaline Wilson. However, Wilson’s filing under seal appears to be against court rules on sealing documents, which require a judge’s consent and are only supposed to be done for very good reasons.
According to the local rules and federal court rules, documents are only supposed to be filed under seal for good reason and a record of the motion to file a document under seal is supposed to appear on the court docket, as outlined by Jeff Proctor in New Mexico In Depth.
She wrote in the initial motion that Briones, during the arraignment, said if Clah “performed well” at the halfway house, he would consider “possible modification” the conditions of his release. The current conditions restrict his travel to Bernalillo county. The minutes contain no details of what was said.
Wilson opposed Clah’s release pending trial during the arraignment, while pretrial officers suggested release, according to the minutes.
Carey wrote that Clah’s father is on dialysis and his health has recently declined and his mother, Bessie Begay, contacted her to say that his father has “developed something akin to dementia.”
Before being arrested, Clah “took on all of the household tasks and helped his mother with his father’s health care.” He also took care of his 4-year-old daughter, who is now in Begay’s custody, she wrote.
Clah’s doctors are also in Shiprock and Farmington, closer to Red Valley than to Albuquerque. If he were allowed to return to Red Valley, he could also continue his work at Yazzie Oil Field Service. Allowing him to move back in with his parents would remove him from a communal living situation and possible infection by the coronavirus, Carey wrote.
Federal pretrial services in Arizona conducted a home assessment and said it would take responsibility for Clah’s supervision, she wrote.
According to Carey’s reply to Wilson’s sealed opposition, Clah has one prior tribal conviction for drunk driving in 2018. He was sentenced to 90 days supervised probation, which he completed.
That prior DWI conviction appears to be the basis of Wilson’s opposition to Clah taking care of his elderly father, helping his mother and parenting his child. Wilson also argues, according to Carey, that the global pandemic is not a “changed circumstance.” However, because Wilson appears to have improperly sealed her opposition, it is not clear if she had any more arguments.
“At this point, concerns pertaining to COVID-19 and the risk of communal living are not merely speculative. Moreover, even if he was required to present evidence of changed circumstances, Mr. Clah submits that he has met his burden given his exemplary conduct while on pretrial release, the deterioration in his father’s physical and mental health, the inability to access medical providers including his surgeon for urgent follow up care, and concerns for his own health and the health of his family because of COVID-19.”
Briones denied Carey’s motion because his “pattern of prior conduct” and that Carey didn’t show that there are “sufficient safeguards” to protect the community from the risk of Clah drinking and driving, if he isn’t living at the halfway house.
In Carey’s April 6 appeal, she wrote that Clah’s father has repeatedly fallen, following his descent in what appears to be dementia, and has been admitted to the hospital on suspicion of internal bleeding. Begay cannot stay with her husband at the hospital because of the risk of the coronavirus.
Clah would not have access to a car while living with his parents. His mother has a vehicle, but it’s provided by her work, she wrote.
“Mr. Clah’s physical movements are restricted by his own physical injuries for which he requires ongoing treatment. Moreover, at present, the entire Navajo Nation has imposed a curfew from 8:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., which is enforced by law enforcement personnel issuing citations and roadblocks. However, should the Court be concerned with Mr. Clah’s movement, he would be willing to submit to electronic monitoring under home detention or any other condition the court deems appropriate.”
Clah’s pretrial officer is still supports his request to move back to Red Valley, she wrote.
Whenever Clah speaks to his daughter on the phone, “she often cries and begs for him,” Carey wrote. “He is extremely concerned about the effect this separation is having on her, and worried about the burden his absence is putting on his mother.”
Begay also wrote a letter to the court.
In her order releasing Clah, Riggs wrote his medical and physical condition weighed toward his release, especially because he needed surgery on his leg, which is infected and that the halfway house stated they could not take care of his medical needs after he is released from the hospital.
She also found that, contrary to Briones’ opinion, the Clah has no access to a vehicle, the only way he poses a danger to the community.
“Given that Defendant has a history of compliance with conditions of release or probation, and lacks access to a vehicle, the Court agrees with Pretrial Services’ recommendation and concludes that these conditions will reasonably assure the safety of the community,” Riggs wrote.
On Sept. 21, 2020, Clah pleaded guilty without a plea agreement to involuntary manslaughter. He faces a maximum sentence of eight years.
District Judge Kea Riggs, who previously ordered him released, sentenced to just over three years (37 months) followed by three years on supervised release after he is released from prison, during the hearing on Dec. 15, 2020, according to minutes from the hearing. He must also pay $4,500 in restitution.
Chavez’s father, Kinsey Chavez, addressed the judge through a Navajo interpreter, but what he said is not memorialized in the minutes. Clah also made a statement to the judge.
Riggs gave him two days to turn himself in to begin serving his sentence, according to the minutes.
No sentencing memorandums appear in the court docket either, although the docket is missing eight entries between when Clah pleaded guilty (entry 37) and the entry of judgement (entry 52)in the case. Improperly sealed documents appear to be a problem in New Mexico’s federal court, as outlined by Jeff Proctor, writing in New Mexico In Depth. He found a pattern and practice by prosecutors and public defenders to improperly seal documents in federal criminal cases, contrary to local and federal rules on sealing procedures.
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