The Role Of The Sheriff In Los Alamos County

Los Alamos County Councilor

Two months ago, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s office offered Los Alamos County Sheriff Marco Lucero a surplus Ford Explorer police vehicle to use in his duties as Sheriff. 

The Sheriff does a fair amount of driving using his own car (for which he is reimbursed) and sometimes County Motor Pool vehicles. The County Council (against my and Councilor (James) Chrobocinski’s votes) at this year’s budget hearing had declined his request to buy a new vehicle for him, which I considered at the time to be a cost-saving measure. Accepting the surplus Santa Fe vehicle would have cost no more to the County than the present practice of reimbursing Sheriff Lucero for the use of his private vehicle. 

Councilor (David) Izraelevitz offered a compromise to accept the vehicle and its police radio, with emergency lights and siren removed, but this motion failed (Chrobocinski, Sheehey, and Izraelevitz voted for; (Steven) Girrens, (Rick) Reiss, and (Susan) O’Leary against; Chair (Kristin) Henderson was absent). It is clear from public and Council comments on that motion that there are misunderstandings about the role of Sheriff. This article is meant to help clarify this issue.

After the July 7 Council meeting, the County Attorney and I went over the County Charter and related state law, county ordinances and resolutions: “(Los Alamos County Charter) 304.4. Duties of the Sheriff, Police Department and Peace Officers. The Council shall establish as a department of the County, a Police Department to be charged with conserving the peace and enforcing the laws of the State and the ordinances of the County. The Sheriff shall have those powers and duties assigned to Sheriffs by state statutes, including the powers of a peace officer, but the Sheriff shall not duplicate or perform those duties in this Charter or by ordinance or resolution assigned or delegated to the County’s Police Department.”

This means that the Sheriff will not duplicate duties assigned by the County Council to the police department (such as in Resolution 12-08 “…7. The Police Department is established under the Los Alamos County Charter and its functions are conserving the peace and enforcing the laws of the State and the ordinances of the County; responding to calls for service; investigating crimes and accidents; emergency management; consolidated dispatch; detention; and animal control.”).

The Sheriff does have duties either explicitly assigned to him by the Council (such as enforcing liens–County Code 12-41), or assigned by the state to sheriffs and not explicitly re-assigned by Council to the police department (such as process service–NM Statute 4-41-14, 2013–and the sex offender registry).  He also has the powers of a peace officer, about which our ordinances state (County Code 38-97c) “…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.”  For our Sheriff to act as a peace officer, he does need to be a state certified law enforcement officer, which Sheriff Lucero is.

Bottom line: Our Sheriff does have civil law enforcement responsibilities (liens, process serving) and, when he is properly certified, limited peace officer arresting powers.  Some citizens may think we don’t need that, and that we should abolish the Sheriff’s office altogether, but that’s not what our present charter and laws dictate.

In the 1975 case of Larry Vaughn, Sheriff of Los Alamos County, vs. the Incorporated County of Los Alamos, the New Mexico District Court upheld this distribution of powers between the Sheriff and Police Department: “D. The County of Los Alamos assigned to its police department all law enforcement duties involving the keeping of the peace.  E. All other statutory and customary functions and duties of a sheriff remain with the Sheriff of Los Alamos County. The action of the County in providing for some of the statutory duties of a sheriff to be performed by other officers and employees is in conformance with Article X, Section 5 of the New Mexico State Constitution.”

I have talked with Sheriff Lucero and Police Chief (Dino) Sgambellone about this. Sheriff Lucero has convinced me that he has a clear understanding of the legal limits of his job, and that he has an obligation to protect the public when he encounters a situation involving public safety, calling in the help of the Los Alamos police department promptly. In my opinion, the County should provide him with a suitable vehicle with a police radio installed. I have suggested to Sheriff Lucero that he follows up this article with his own article describing in detail what he sees as his role in this County, why he needs a marked vehicle, and how he continues to work cooperatively with the police department.

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