NM sheriffs on the wrong side of the law

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan has had a difficult year so far.

Sheriff James Lujan

He currently faces two felonies and three misdemeanor charges, all of which stem from incidents where Lujan allegedly assisted, or attempted to assist, former Española city councilor Phillip Chacon evade arrest by the Española Police Department.

Police have arrested Lujan on two separate occasions, the first time for refusing to unlock a cellphone that was subject to a search warrant. Española Police Chief Roger Jimenez stated in a criminal complaint that Lujan used the phone to contact Chacon, whom police were trying to arrest in relation to a stabbing.

During that same incident on March 21, Lujan arrived out of uniform at the scene and demanded that other officers leave so he could arrest Chacon. Multiple officers stated they smelled alcohol and believe Lujan was intoxicated.

These incidents have led to many in Rio Arriba County calling for Lujan to step down or be removed from office.

No matter the outcome of Lujan’s trials, the arrest of a sheriff in New Mexico for allegedly breaking the law is not without precedent.

In counties across the state, even when New Mexico was just a territory, multiple sheriffs have faced their day in court for abusing the power of their office.

One of the earliest examples found was Sheriff Francisco Chavez of Santa Fe County, who pleaded guilty in 1890 to assaulting a prisoner in the county jail. An article from the Santa Fe Daily New Mexican, as it was then known, states Chavez confessed to the crime on the witness stand after pleading his innocence only days prior.

“The courtroom, being crowded with spectators, barely knew what to make of it,” the article states. “But evidently, the accused felt that a conviction of assault was certain.”

Chavez was accused a month later of embezzling tax dollars.

It’s not clear if Chavez served any jail time, but he was assassinated a year later by four men who used wooden keys to break out of their jail cells, articles show. The governor of the territory refused to make any arrest while he was in office, as he was politically opposed to Chavez.

Some crimes committed by New Mexico sheriffs were more innocuous. An ex-Taos County sheriff was arrested in 1930 for allegedly stealing his neighbor’s chickens (detectives noted a pile of feathers on the ex-sheriff’s living room floor). In 1976, a Sandoval County sheriff was arrested for allegedly transporting two undocumented immigrants from El Paso.

Others, however, were far more sinister.

Then-Doña Ana County Sheriff A.M. “Happy” Apodaca, along with two deputies, were found guilty in 1949 of torturing a murder confession out of an African American.

“It is a novel case since it involves for the first time as a defendant the highest police officer of a state and the torture methods employed rival those of the Inquisition for sheer brutality,” a Department of Justice bulletin read.

Apodaca later claimed the all-white grand jury racially discriminated against him after the local district attorney filed a petition to remove Apodaca from office.

In 1983, Guadalupe County Sheriff Juan Lopez and former sheriff Willie Ronquillo pleaded guilty, along with multiple other county officials, to conspiring to buy votes in the next election. The grand jury said some voters were given $10 to vote, while others were given gasoline and liquor. Lopez and Ronquillo were each sentenced to 200 hours of community service.

Former Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano

Lujan, though, has not been the only sheriff recently in trouble with the law. In 2011, former Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano served several weeks in jail for selling department equipment on eBay. Lujan’s predecessor, Tommy Rodella, is serving a 10-year sentence after a road-rage incident ended in Rodella assaulting and pointing his gun at a man while out of uniform.

In total, the Journal identified at least 20 sheriffs across the state convicted of criminal activity, many of whom were subsequently removed from office.

Former Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella

Ninth Judicial District Attorney Andrea Reeb, assigned by Attorney General Hector Balderas to prosecute Lujan, said she would need to be assigned before petitioning for Lujan’s removal. She also said she would want to secure a conviction before making such a decision.

First Judicial Attorney Marco Serna has the authority to petition for Lujan’s removal now, but it is unclear whether he will do so.

Voters in Rio Arriba County also have the option to gather signatures for a recall of Sheriff Lujan. It would require almost 3,000 signatures, around 7% of all the county’s residents.

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