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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  Cock Block
police-impersonator
This photo, taken by Mario Marin at the time of the raid, shows Heather Ferguson, center, with law enforcement officers.
Mario Marin

Cock Block

Critics say the AG’s Animal Cruelty Task Force oversteps its authority

November 9, 2010, 1:00 am

Mario Marin describes what happened at his father’s ranch in early May 2009 as a bloodbath. Marin, a former San Juan County sheriff’s deputy who once raised roosters for cockfighting, watched Animal Control Officers euthanize 400 roosters and hens after finding cockfighting paraphernalia on his father’s property. According to a statement signed by Marin, the whole process took approximately six hours.


“They killed everything they could put a net on,” Marin tells SFR. The officers, from San Juan County and the local police department, also confiscated 285 baby chicks and 35 hens.


According to a report filed by New Mexico State Police Agent Max Salas, the paraphernalia—13 “multi purpose knives,” illegal steroids and other items—were enough to convince investigators that the Marins were running a cockfighting operation. In 2007, cockfighting became illegal in New Mexico, and Salas was out to enforce the law. With him were several officers from the local police and county sheriff’s departments, and two volunteers from New Mexico Attorney General Gary King’s Animal Cruelty Task Force, a veterinarian named Patricia Feeser and Heather Ferguson, a registered lobbyist and the legislative director for Animal Protection of New Mexico.


The specific details surrounding the case are largely undisputed: After a tip-off from a confidential informant, Department of Public Safety and local officers obtained a search warrant for Marin’s father’s property. They confiscated the cockfighting paraphernalia and 16 unhealthy birds.
But what happened next involves a question central to several civil lawsuits currently pending against Ferguson, various law enforcement agencies and the Attorney General’s Office: that of the task force’s authority to enforce New Mexico’s cockfighting ban. 


After the search warrant at the Marin residence was completed, according to Salas’ report, “Ms. Ferguson requested I draft a second…Search Warrant for the remaining roosters and chickens.” 


Salas did so and returned with the warrant later that week. 


“Ferguson from the Attorney Generals [sic] office,” he writes, “assisted me with executing the Search Warrant.”


According to Roger Rodriguez, the lead attorney on a class action suit against King and various task force members (including Ferguson), such statements point to a gross overstep. 


In 2009, in a response to a public records request by longtime animal activist Marcy Britton, the Attorney General’s Office made clear that Ferguson was neither an employee nor a contractor of the office.


“It’s not only the government [overstepping], but her representing that she has the authority,” Rodriguez says. “Nobody bothered to question it.” 


Ferguson agrees that she “could never help execute a search warrant” because she is a private citizen. Allegations that she misrepresented herself as an employee or contractor of the AG’s Office, she says, are “absolutely untrue.”


Asked specifically about Salas’ police report, however, Ferguson says, “I provided assistance to law enforcement agencies that requested my expertise for animal issues.”


When asked what kind of assistance she meant, Ferguson declined to comment further.


But Elisabeth Jennings, the executive director of Animal Protection of New Mexico, says Ferguson’s role as a coordinator and volunteer has always been clear.


“These are new laws, so we and the law enforcement entities have spent a lot of time training people,” Jennings says. “Everything [Ferguson] has been doing has been with that intent.”


Phil Sisneros, King’s communications director, declined to comment on pending litigation but writes in an email to SFR that “The AG is the Chairman of the task force but has no authority over member organizations or individuals.”


Task force members who are also law enforcement officers, Sisneros explains, “have independent authority to enforce New Mexico animal-cruelty laws.”


Regardless, Rodriguez says, the cockfighting ban is being abused. 


Rodriguez’ original petition was dismissed this spring. But he has since filed an amended complaint listing approximately 2,000 plaintiffs who have also been the targets of raids by the task force.


“People perceive that we are fighting for the right to continue to fight roosters, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Rodriguez tells SFR. “We’re not saying the law in itself is unconstitutional; we’re saying the way it is being read by authorities is unconstitutional. They are arresting and charging people [who] are not fighting roosters.”


Ferguson, however, says no search or seizure in which she has participated has been unconstitutional.


“These lawsuits are the death rattles of a violent, animal-abusing industry,” she says.


John Goodwin, the manager of animal fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States, adds that it’s “extremely disingenuous” for former cockfighters to complain about euthanasia. 


“The cockfighters put knives on [the birds’] legs, and they die a long, drawn-out death,” Goodwin says. “If they sit there and pretend they care so much that an animal’s put down, it’s crocodile tears. They would’ve had these animals go do something that’s 100 times worse.”


New Mexico was the 49th state to ban cockfighting, he notes, which means nostalgia for the sport is still fresh—and sometimes rancorous.


“There’s still a lot of cockfighters out there that resist the fact that this is now illegal and that society’s moved on past this blood sport, so they’re lashing out,” Goodwin says. “Because [Ferguson] helped get the ban passed and enforced, they’re out to get her.”


Marin, however, claims neither he nor his father has fought roosters since the ban.


“We used to go to Socorro to rooster fight,” Marin says. Now, he says, “We use them for breeding and showing.”


Under the statute, breeding or showing roosters is legal. Training them for battle, however, is not—but Rodriguez says task force members have confiscated poultry or other property without proof of cockfighting, “killing roosters on the spot without doing a due-process
hearing.”


In another lawsuit, which is set for a scheduling conference this week and names Doña Ana County officials, plaintiffs allege that they were coerced to allow law enforcement officers to search their property. 


In an opinion denying the county’s motion to dismiss the suit, US District Court Judge Bruce Black writes that “consent to euthanization occurred only after these Plaintiffs were threatened with felony convictions as well as monetary penalties.” Other plaintiffs “were detained for such an extensive period of time,” Black writes, that it raised the question of whether “their detention ripened into an arrest.”


The task force, meanwhile, has other problems. In an audit of its 2009 fiscal year, the New Mexico Office of the State Auditor found that the task force paid $9,300 in conference registration fees to the New Mexico Sheriffs’ & Police Association without a proper contract.
When SFR spoke with Marin, the sound of roosters crowing filled the background.


“They killed everything but about 60 hens that they couldn’t catch,” Marin says. “They asked me to, in the dark, go up to the trees and catch them and pen them up so they could come kill them.”


Marin never caught the birds, and the authorities never called. And since the Marins agreed to turn the rest over to the state, neither Marin nor his father was ever charged with cockfighting. 


“The authorities jumped the gun and used that law to criminalize behavior that’s not criminal,” Rodriguez concludes. “A law that was designed to protect roosters,” he says, “is being used to violate human rights.”

 

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