What exactly is "agricultural trespass"? Or just another free pass for illegal aliens criminal behavior?
From 1998 to 2004, Mr. Ritter oversaw plea bargains in 152 cases that permitted defendants to plead guilty to agricultural trespass instead of more serious charges, including assault, drug trafficking and vehicle theft, that carry a penalty of mandatory deportation, according to court documents.
In one case, an attorney for Ernesto Leon Reyes, a resident alien facing deportation after being charged with possession and intention to distribute methamphetamine, said the deal was struck to allow Reyes to remain in the United States. He ultimately received probation.
"This plea agreement was reached with the specific purpose of not pleading guilty to an offense that would subject [the defendant] to deportation proceedings," the attorney wrote in an October 2000 motion.
Mr. Ritter, 49, leads in the polls, but if any issue has the power to swing the race, say analysts, it's illegal entry. His opponent, Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez, seized on the disclosure with television ads accusing Mr. Ritter of "allowing alien felons back on the streets."
"Coloradans deserve to know that Bill Ritter ignored the law, plea-bargained with alien felons and purposefully let criminals avoid deportation," Mr. Beauprez said.
Mr. Ritter, who served as district attorney from June 1993 to January 2005, defended his record, saying many of the cases had evidentiary or witness problems that prevented a successful prosecution on the original charges.
The lesser charge was "a tool in the toolbox to get a felony conviction and permanent mark on somebody's record," said his spokesman, Evan Dreyer, adding that the cases represented less than 1 percent of the 38,000 handled by the office from 1998 to 2004.
Still, the specter of criminals pleading guilty to trespassing on farmland in Denver, a mix of urban, residential and industrial zoning with virtually no rural component, quickly became grist for Colorado's talk-radio mill.
"All I want to know is, where's the farm?" said KHOW-AM talk-show host Peter Boyles with a laugh.
With just five weeks before the Nov. 7 election, however, analysts said it's not clear whether the issue can give Mr. Beauprez the boost he needs to close the gap. The two-term congressman trails by from three points to 17 points in polls, thanks in part to campaign gaffes, a bruising primary battle and an election cycle that's trending Democratic.
"Ritter has a couple of vulnerabilities going into the last month," said Denver political analyst Eric Sondermann. "The plea-bargain issue is a potential hot button and immigration is a hot button, and clearly [Republicans] are trying to connect the two. I'm just not sure it's going to give them the bang they want."