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Be careful about your flags in Rio Arriba

Don’t try this in Rio Arriba County on the Fourth of July. (Courtesy of Latino Public Policy Foundation)

Rio Arriba County has had its share of tragic stories recently. Other items from the upstream territory, while not calamitous or sorrowful, are simply troubling, bad news, with certain novelistic twists that make them attention-grabbers.

Into this category must be filed what is only the most recent account of a Rio Arriba sheriff pulling over someone for no good reason, and probably illegally.

A Chama restaurant owner Joshua Talamonte (or Talamante, depending on the source) was driving down the road on the Fourth of July with American and Mexican flags flying on his truck, according to formal notice of a lawsuit filed with county government.

Rio Arriba Sheriff James Lujan is accused of pulling Talamonte over, cussing him out and making him move each flag from one side of the truck to the other. “You could get shot for that,” the notice quotes the sheriff as exclaiming.

Lujan is said to have cited some law about flags. There is, in fact, a U.S. Flag Code on where and how to display Old Glory, but it’s only advisory. That’s why burning the American flag – a much more dramatic and less positive gesture than proudly flying two countries’ flags on a truck – is a legally protected act.

But wait, there’s more. The next day, the Mexican flag fell off and, as fate would have it, the sheriff’s son happened to be driving just behind, says the lawsuit notice.

The restaurant owner says the son maneuvered to run over the flag, prompting another dispute that ended when a deputy showed up to confiscate the tri-colored banner, which the sheriff later returned to the owner’s brother with the admonition that the flag-flyer had been rude to an officer. Talamonte also says the son claimed to be a police officer, which the lawsuit notice says isn’t true.

A lawyer for Talamonte said pretty much everything necessary with his comment that the lawsuit-to-come will teach Sheriff Lujan “about both the U.S. and New Mexico Constitutions and the strong protections they provide for free speech.” But one could also add that a law officer should have better things to do than to hassle someone driving down the road flying flags.

No law enforcement authority would admit to looking into whether the sheriff or his son did anything illegal, like not having cause to pull over the flag-flyer, using the position of law enforcement authority to violate free speech or impersonating an officer.

The Santa Fe District Attorney’s Office, when asked by a Journal North reporter, issued a bizarre statement saying it had not received a case from any local law enforcement agency – such as, maybe, the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office – about the incident.

There is a precedent for prosecuting a bad traffic stop by a Rio Arriba sheriff. Former Sheriff Tommy Rodella was convicted in 2014 of violating the civil rights of a young driver by first tailgating, and then chasing down and roughing up the driver while brandishing a firearm. Rodella was in his personal car and not in uniform.

That driver first tried to complain to local law enforcement agencies, which went nowhere, before he took his case to the FBI. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque prosecuted Rodella, who is now serving a harsh (10 years) sentence in federal prison.

Rodella’s son was involved in that case, just as Lujan’s is said to be in the flag caper. Rodella Jr. initially faced charges that were later dropped.

So far, the less severe case against Sheriff Lujan is just an allegation. A sheriff’s office spokesman had no comment, including on whether the sheriff’s son is really on officer.

But if shown to be true, the sheriff’s action should not go unpunished – if not criminally, then administratively or in civil court.

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