De Baca County squabble leaves sheriff concerned

By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ staff writer

De Baca County Sheriff Gary Graves spent Monday night sleeping in his office to protect records. And he plans on sleeping there until a district judge rules on whether he is allowed to keep personnel from other county agencies out of his office.

Tenth Judicial District Court Judge Ricky Purcell issued a preliminary injunction Monday barring Graves from preventing access by “any person authorized access by the Board of County Commissioners” to areas of the courthouse containing a fire alarm and DWI breathalyzer until a court hearing on April 29.

Graves said that’s unacceptable because the fire alarm apparatus is in a room used to store confidential records that his office is required by law to keep secure.

“I will go home when the chief deputy comes in, take a shower, and come back,” Graves said late Monday evening.

“All I ask for is the sanctity of my office and security of my office,” Graves said. “Do your research, and I think you will find there is not another sheriff’s office in the state of New Mexico where the sheriff is not allowed to lock the doors.”

The dispute dates back to a series of decisions over the last year by county and city officials that created a separate Fort Sumner Police Department and removed the dispatch center and county jail from the authority of the sheriff. All personnel in those offices were previously hired by the sheriff and subject to background checks as sheriff’s department employees. However, once the offices were split up, access to the office became an issue.

“We’ve had a real problem with the room in the bottom of our courthouse; there are just so many entities,” said Powhatan Carter III, chairman of the De Baca County Commission.

“Before we had dispatch, detention and the sheriff’s office in the same facilities,” Carter said. “We made a directive to share one of the rooms and we finally went in this direction of seeking help from the district attorney.”

“The direction we came down with was to split the room down the middle and provide quick access to the (breathalyzer) for the state police and village police,” Carter said.

Carter said the commission has offered to provide locking file and computer cabinets, but Graves said the county hasn’t followed through on its proposals and questioned whether locking cabinets would meet security requirements.

“We don’t have any way of securing our files, we have no way of securing our office where our evidence is,” Graves said. “They keep talking but they don’t produce. They continually state they don’t have money for raises, for cars, for anything. How are they going to come up with money for this?”

Graves said the fundamental issue is the right of county sheriffs, as separately elected officers, to have adequate facilities to do their jobs.

“If this happens, this is going to give ultimate right to all county commissioners statewide to govern how the sheriff does his business,” Graves said. “They are going to come in and take his office away, his vehicles away, and his equipment away, and then why have a sheriff?”

Graves said the De Baca County case, if allowed to stand, would set a dangerous precedent for all 33 sheriffs in the state. For that reason, Graves said he plans to fight the county commissioners’ decision all the way to the supreme court if necessary, with assistance by the New Mexico Sheriffs Association and possibly other law enforcement associations.

However, Carter said he hopes things can still be worked out amicably.

“I personally don’t know why we can’t share some of these things but apparently he doesn’t feel comfortable with the people who are there,” Carter said. “Forever we had seven, eight, 10 people working together in the same office, so I don’t know what the problem is now.”