Defining the role of the county sheriff

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Libertarian Candidate, Los Alamos  County Sheriff

While campaigning for the position of sheriff of Los Alamos County, I’m often asked “What do you see the role of the sheriff to be?” My answer does not fit on a bumper sticker.

First to be clear, I nor any other person in the office of sheriff gets to decide what the size, scope and powers of the sheriff’s office are. Neither does the county council get to decide that the sheriff’s office can be stripped of all of it’s powers.

New Mexico state law dictates many of the powers and responsibilities of the county sheriff position, and the obligations of the counties for staffing and funding of the office of sheriff.

The lawsuit currently before the New Mexico Appellate Court will, in my opinion, ultimately end up before the New Mexico Supreme Court. Once the New Mexico Supreme Court issues a decision, the extent to which the county charter and county council can restrict the office of sheriff will have been decided.

The rule of law is critically important in society. It is vital that the county council, and the sheriff, abide by the decision of the court, and during the appeals process.

The ruling of the district court in June, while it upheld the county’s claim that it can strip the sheriff of the power to keep the peace, did affirm that the traditional non-law enforcing duties of maintenance of the sex offender registry and service of civil process. To date the county council has not complied with the ruling of this court and restored the power and duty of the sheriff’s office to serve civil process. They should act expeditiously to do so, in order to avoid a contempt citation by the judge.

What should the role of the sheriff in Los Alamos be?

It is my firm opinion that the people need to have an elected representative in charge of law enforcement, and traditionally that role is that of the elected sheriff.

It has been widely commented that this county does not need more than one law enforcement agency, and that this duplication is inefficient. While some of those making this comment wish to eliminate the office of sheriff, as a non-lawyer, my reading of state law is that a sheriff’s office, once instituted in a county, can’t be eliminated by an act of county council. However, a municipal police force is not required by either state statute or the New Mexico Constitution.

The other solution to the inefficiency is to consolidate all county law enforcement into the sheriff’s office. I was initially a supporter of this idea, but while I still support the idea in principal, there is no way that such a plan can be put in place in less than a few years.

State law ( N. M. S. A. 1978, § 4-44-14 )would have to be changed to adjust the salary of the Sheriff for Class H counties (Los Alamos is the only Class H county in New Mexico) to a more realistic figure. There are multiple issues with transitioning the current police officers to sheriff’s deputies, from retirement and benefits, to union issues. Even if the new county council were to enthusiastically support this idea, it would take multiple years to amend the county charter, get the New Mexico Legislature to make the needed changes, and deal with all the other issues such a transition would bring up.

Assuming that the New Mexico Supreme Courts rules that Los Alamos can’t ignore state law (NMSA 1978 4-42-5 ), and that a minimal sheriff’s office with law enforcement powers with a part time sheriff, an under sheriff and an administrative assistant is ordered by the court, the minimum duties of the sheriff are the maintenance and enforcement of the sex offender registry, and service of civil process, jail supervision, court security, and prisoner transport. No new spending would be involved, just transfer of those duties and monies from the police department to the sheriff’s office.

If the ultimate ruling of the court is that the sheriff can be stripped of all duties, while I would find this a tragic and undesirable decision, I will abide by that decision. In that case I would not accept a salary, and would donate any salary from that ceremonial office to some worthy cause. I would, however, engage in the political process to try to persuade the then county council to address this by changing the charter to restore a functional sheriff’s office.

If you have any questions or comments on these issues, I am holding a Liberty BBQ event at the Posse Lodge at 5 p.m. Sept. 8. I’ll be more than happy to answer any questions or concerns at length at that event. Or, you can contact me at Chris@ChrisLuchini.org.

Chris Luchini is the Libertarian Candidate for Los Alamos County Sheriff.