EUNICE — Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton expects the “Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act,” the Red Flag Bill, to become law in New Mexico and he’s ready to go to jail, if necessary, for refusal to enforce the law.
Helton earned applause from the audience, which included Hobbs City Commissioner Duane Pennick, at the Eunice City Hall meeting Monday when Helton said, “If I’m a one-term sheriff because (a judge) puts me in jail, then I’ll be a one-term sheriff that stood his ground and is able to sleep at night.”
The council was considering whether to pass a symbolic resolution expressing opposition to the legislation, similar to a resolution approved last week by the Lea County Commission.
Pennick said, “I’m just here to support the sheriff.”
The Red Flag Bill, designed to remove firearms from individuals who might pose a threat to themselves or others, passed the state Senate on Friday on a vote of 22-20, but only after multiple amendments, some of which Helton said made the bill even worse. The bill now is in the House where it is expected to pass by a larger margin.
Helton believes the law would be unconstitutional, violating both the U.S. Constitution’s Second and 14th Amendments, which guarantee the government will not infringe on the right to own and bear arms and guarantee due process of law.
“I know an argument can be made that as a sheriff I’m supposed to enforce the laws that our Legislature enacts, but I submit to you, how can you compel me to enforce an unconstitutional law?” Helton said. “I took an oath 37 years ago in the Army and that oath means more to me today, every day, than it did back then. I can’t sit back idly and be ordered to enforce an unconstitutional law.”
One of the amendments imposed on Friday involved tort claims suits against sheriffs who don’t comply with orders to take a person’s firearms.
“They’re going to mandate me to enforce them with the tort claims act they added to it. It started at $2 million, now it’s down to $750,000,” Helton said. “That’s the big threat from the governor to the sheriffs because she knows we stand in opposition. I remind you it’s 30 sheriffs in opposition to this in 33 counties.”
He broke the situation down to a Catch-22.
“I can be sued if I fail to act, but I’m also going to be sued for an unlawful search and seizure when I come to your house and take your guns,” Helton said.
The sheriff specified one of the amendments to the bill that seemed to soften the so-called “crisis” that results in an order to remove a person’s guns.
“The whole purpose of this Red Flag was to intervene in a crisis situation and take the firearms. I think we can all agree to that,” Helton said. “But under one of these amendments, they changed it. The same order will come around. I’ll get that order and I’ll serve it, but now you have 48 hours to surrender that firearm to any law enforcement. Now, where is (the crisis)?”
He implored council members to become familiar with the bill, if they already weren’t.
“This is dangerous. It’s dangerous to law enforcement. It’s dangerous to citizens, and remember, it’s based on unsubstantiated allegations before convicting (a gun owner accused of being dangerous), presuming he’s going to commit a crime,” Helton said. “Where have we gotten in this country to where you seize property over a crime that may occur?”
Councilman Jerry Corral asked for clarification on the 48-hour issue.
Helton answered that under the amendment to the bill, “We’re going to give them 48 hours to surrender their weapons. This took away the crisis aspect, which is what it’s for. Under the amendment, if you don’t turn in your weapon within 48 hours, you are guilty of a misdemeanor. Now, we’re charging a crime over a civil order. So, what am I going to do if he slams a door in my face? Am I going to bring a SWAT team to Eunice on a civil order? And now we’re going to turn this guy into a criminal.”
He offered an example of a situation after an order is issued.
“This guy has not been in court. This guy has not faced his accuser. He is not given counsel,” Helton outlined. “I show up at his door, he has no knowledge, and he doesn’t get a hearing for 10-15 days, at his expense. He doesn’t get a public defender. Now, he’s proving himself innocent. This could be nothing more than a husband and wife in bitter divorce … and you just ruin that guy’s life.”
Eunice Police Chief Casey Arcidez explained personal and professional beliefs will have to differ.
“I just want to say that I do back Sheriff Helton. I’ve known him a long time. I want to thank you for supporting the police chief and law enforcement in general,” Arcidez said. “With that being said, I have a personal belief on this and I have a professional belief on this. I am not an elected official. I answer to you all. So my stance on this is I have to be neutral and bipartisan.
“If this becomes law, it’s law,” Arcidez continued. “We can’t decide what laws we’re going to enforce or not enforce. I can’t. I still have years to retirement. I can’t go to jail.”
Helton put his hand on Arcidez’ shoulder and expressed approval and understanding of his statement.
“I think what will happen is it will have to be served by the Sheriff’s Office as an officer of the court. Hopefully, the municipality wouldn’t be involved,” the sheriff said.
The resolution passed unanimously.