County liable for tribal officer’s actions when enforcing state laws

May 13, 2015

Police lights
A New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that Santa Fe County is liable for the actions of Pojoaque Pueblo tribal officer who was acting on the authority granted him by a sheriff’s office commission to enforce state laws.

The case centered on a 2009 incident in which Officer Glen Gutierrez pulled Jose Luis Loya over for alleged reckless driving. Loya was driving through Pojoaque on his way home from a fishing trip when, Loya charges, Gutierrez braked abruptly in front of him causing him to swerve. The lawsuit said that Gutierrez kicked  one of Loya’s legs out from under him and pinned him against his truck, aggravating an existing neck injury.

Loya named Gutierrez and the pueblo as defendants in his complaint, but lawyer’s for the pueblo’s insurance company argued that Santa Fe County was responsible for defending the officer because he was enforcing state law not tribal law. The county argued that it should not be legally liable for the actions of an officer it does not supervise, nor did it train.  The county argued that Gutierrez did not fit the definition of a county employee for the purposes of the state Tort Claims Act. Two lower state courts sided with the county, but the New Mexico Supreme Court did not, finding that Gutierrez was acting on behalf of the county and enforcing state law and that therefore, he did fit the definition of a state employee as defined in the New Mexico Tort Claims Act. See Loya v. Gutierrez, Supreme Court State of New Mexico, No. 34,447 (May 11, 2015)

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