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When it comes to getting pulled over, the name on the car matters.
Steven Hsieh

Tug-of-Turf

Excessive force settlement closes chapter on dispute between Santa Fe County and Pueblo of Pojoaque

November 23, 2016, 12:00 am

Attorneys had agreed on the jury instructions. Witnesses were lined up. Twelve locals were already empaneled as a jury to hear both sides of the story.

But the case came to an abrupt end on Halloween after six years of arbitration and litigation that involved a heated jurisdictional dispute between the Pueblo of Pojoaque and the county sheriff’s department.

Santa Fe County instead agreed to a $75,000 settlement last month with Jose Luis Loya, a Texas man who had sued in 2010 alleging wrongful arrest and excessive force by police.

Had the case not been settled out of court, the jury would have determined whether Sergeant Glen Gutierrez, a Pojoaque police officer who was also commissioned as a county sheriff’s deputy, pulled over Loya without probable cause as he was driving on Highway 84. They would have also heard a claim that Gutierrez pinned Loya’s neck against a truck window and kicked him in the leg.

But the New Mexico Supreme Court in May 2015 already answered the biggest question arising out of Loya’s lawsuit—whether the county can be held liable for the actions of commissioned outside forces. Because of the answer, Santa Fe County no longer commissions outside police to help enforce laws within its jurisdiction.

That prompted Sheriff Robert Garcia to end a years-long practice of enlisting the help of 17 different agencies to help enforce traffic laws and state statutes across the expansive region, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the City of Santa Fe, Torrance County, Los Alamos, Edgewood and the Pueblos of Pojoaque and Tesuque.

He revoked sheriff’s department commissions from the all but one police department. Outside of Garcia’s deputies, only officers from the Los Alamos Police Department maintain authority to write tickets and make arrests in unincorporated parts of Santa Fe County. To keep those commissions, Los Alamos officials had to enter into a formal agreement with Garcia’s department to carry any liability for actions carried out as county deputies.

"Unless I can enter into agreements, things will stay as they are."
        -Sheriff Robert Garcia

“Unless I can enter into agreements, things will stay as they are,” Garcia tells SFR. “We will continue functioning and cover the county with our own resources.”

Gutierrez filed a claim saying he was enforcing a state statute for reckless driving during the traffic stop, and was therefore acting as a county deputy during the arrest. As such, county officials should carry the legal and financial burden on Loya’s lawsuit. Gutierrez’ case went to the Supreme Court.

In a unanimous decision, the high court ruled that the county must defend the Pojoaque officer, reversing an Appeals Court ruling. In doing so, the court resolved “a significant issue of law that potentially affects law enforcement wherever state and tribal lands border each other throughout New Mexico,” wrote now-retired Justice Richard Bosson.

The ruling led to dissolution of agreements between Santa Fe County and surrounding law enforcement departments.

Garcia had already decommissioned Pojoaque officers during the legal dispute. Then-tribal governor George Rivera purchased a two-and-a-half page ad in the New Mexican condemning the sheriff department’s decision. Rivera’s ad followed a rash of complaints by Sheriff Garcia’s non-Pueblo constituents of aggressive ticketing by Pojoaque officers.

According to the settlement dated Oct. 31, the county does not admit to any wrongdoing on behalf of the sheriff’s department or officer Gutierrez. It’s agreeing to pay out $75,000 to “avoid the time, energy and expense of further litigation.”

In the lawsuit, Loya claims Gutierrez applied his patrol car brakes in a “reckless” manner in front of the Texas man’s car. Loya and his three brothers were driving north towards Española, following a fishing trip. Loya swerved his truck into the adjacent lane to avoid colliding into Gutierrez’ car, he says.

Gutierrez allegedly pulled over Loya shortly after the near-collision and ordered him to spread his legs and place his hands behind his back. Loya says Gutierrez pushed his neck up to his truck window and shouted, “I told you to spread them,” before kicking him in his left leg.

The officer arrested Loya and took him to the Adult Detention Center, where the man was incarcerated for two hours, according to jail records. Gutierrez filed a reckless driving charge against the man in Santa Fe County magistrate court.

Without the help of other agencies, Santa Fe County deputies must cover a wide area. For example, if an officer from the Town of Edgewood pulls someone over for DWI outside the town boundaries, that officer will have to call the county to make an arrest.

But stretching out the county’s deputies won’t put anyone in danger, says Sheriff’s Department spokesman Juan Ríos. “We feel comfortable that there is coverage. Just because an agency isn’t commissioned doesn’t mean there won’t be communication between agencies if there is an incident that requires multi-agency interaction.”

Even so, he says, the Town of Edgewood and City of Santa Fe are both currently in negotiations to reinstate officers as county deputies.


 

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