Letter To The Editor: Council Has Indisputably Assigned Police Department All Law Enforcement Authority

By GEORGE CHANDLER
Los Alamos

My friend and County Councilor Pete Sheehey wrote recently in this space concluding that the Los Alamos County Sheriff retains “powers of a peace officer” and cites County Ordinance 38-97(C): “… nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit the arrest, without warrant, by a peace officer of any person when probable cause exists to believe that a felony crime has been committed or in non-traffic cases.” 

Unfortunately this quote is taken out of context – what is contained in the leading ellipsis is critical – and misinterprets the import of the language. 

The section cited is in the traffic code. It details the authority of Los Alamos police to make arrests without a warrant during a traffic stop, accident investigations, and some other motor-vehicle-related situations. It places certain restrictions on those arrests (e.g., arresting officer must be in uniform) and lays out some of the basic requirements for arrests without a warrant. 

The intent of this section is to simply establish the conditions for such arrests in the limited context of traffic or motor vehicle-involved situations. The quoted language is designed to restrict the effect of the section so that it cannot be used to argue to invalidate an arrest without a warrant in another type of situation because it does not meet the section’s simplified rules. 

The reference to “peace officer” applies to all law enforcement, not just Sheriffs, and cannot be construed to confer upon the Sheriff or any other peace officer any authority to make an arrest without a warrant, because the authority to make an arrest without a warrant in general comes from other sources.

A careful review of the law affecting the Sheriff of Los Alamos leaves no doubt that this office retains zero authority to enforce the law at all. Although as Councilor Sheehey points out, the charter in section 304.4 first confers on the Sheriff the “powers of a peace officer,” the New Mexico Constitution (Article X Section 5) and the same charter section 304.4, read together, give the council authority to assign to the police department any or all of the duties assigned by law to the Sheriff. 

For good reason, the council has indisputably assigned to the Police Department all the law enforcement authority held by other New Mexico Sheriffs: “conserving the peace, enforcing the laws of the State and ordinances of the county, responding to calls for service, investigating crimes and accidents, emergency management, and animal control.” 

Law enforcement–wise, the Los Alamos County Sheriff is a hollow shell – looks like a peace officer but has none of the authority of a peace officer (and by the way, “peace officer” and “law enforcement officer” are synonymous).

Previous Sheriffs have challenged this arrangement and lost: an Attorney General opinion from 1968, and a decision by a District Court in 1975 both supported the council’s authority to remove law enforcement from the Sheriff. 

Like it or not, even if you believe our personable Sheriff should compete with our police department, the law wisely does not permit him to do so. I can’t for the life of me figure out why some councilors seem to be advocating for a second, one-man police department, contrary to the law and contrary to common sense. Maybe one of them could explain that.

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