A Valencia County commissioner is arguing the security screening at the district courthouse is an illegal search, which led to a verbal dust-up between he and court security officers in October.  

Body camera footage from court security officer Juliana Archibeque at the 13th Judicial District Courthouse in Los Lunas shows Valencia County Commissioner Joseph Bizzell entering the building on the morning of Oct. 31. Archibeque tells the commissioner to put any items in his pockets in the bin to be passed through the x-ray machine, as well as his belt and watch if he’s wearing them.  

Bizzell holds up his keys and attempts to walk through the metal detector, so Archibeque repeats that all items need to be placed in the bin. The commissioner tosses his keys into a bin and again begins to go through the metal detector. Archibeque says his wallet must go through the screening as well. 

Bizzell says the officers can “wand” him with the handheld metal detector, arguing that putting his wallet through the scanner is an “illegal search.” Sgt. Kenneth Brown comes to the security check point and tells Bizzell if he isn’t willing to do what officers tell him, he can leave the building. 

The commissioner continues to refuse to put his wallet in the scanner saying, “I’m not putting my wallet in there…you guys are thieves.” 

In an interview, Bizzell flatly denied he called the officers thieves, insisting he said they were treating him — and everyone else who entered the courthouse — like criminals and thieves.  He did eventually put his wallet in a bin for scanning and as he left the area, told the officers he would be calling the sheriff.  

“Go ahead, that’s fine,” Brown responded. “We have a job to do here.” 

The commissioner said the comment was made by a security officer “that they have to treat everyone like there’s something illegal on them. To me, that’s an illegal search. I said, ‘Now you know I’m not a thief.’” 

In the video, Bizzell’s use of the word thieves comes before his wallet was scanned. 

Video also shows Bizzell came into the building a second time that same day, apparently trying to bring in a cell phone. 

“She won’t let me bring my cell phone in,” he says, and Brown confirms he can’t bring in a cell phone.  

The commissioner begins to exit the building, then turns to the officers saying, “You need to learn who you’re talking to.” Brown says he doesn’t know who he’s talking to and asks, “Did you identify yourself?” 

“I don’t need to,” Bizzell responds. “…I control your budget…I’m one of the commissioners.” 

The sergeant says even if he is a commissioner, he’s not allowed to have a cell phone in the building. 

“I’ll take care of it,” Bizzell says as he leaves. 

The commissioner told the News-Bulletin officers told him, “everybody is being searched yet not everybody is being searched,” saying he has seen attorneys, including the county’s attorneys, enter the building without going through a security check. 

“If they are saying everybody is going to be searched, then search everybody,” Bizzell said. “It has nothing to do that I’m a commissioner.” 

He also noted the court security policy calls for the screening of handbags, not wallets, adding, “if you want every article, say that. I think that’s an illegal search. But I didn’t do anything wrong. If they saw me do something illegal or suspicious, I could understand.” 

Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil said when Bizzell contacted her personally, saying he wanted to file a complaint about the officer’s behavior,  she took the matter seriously. 

“I told him I have no issue checking into his treatment. I want to make sure everyone is treated the correct way,” Vigil said. “He stated to me the officers were very rude and unprofessional. We reviewed the video and — in our opinion — he was not mistreated. He stated to them he expected them to know who he was. The budget comment felt like he was in a position of authority and trying to use that, which, in my opinion, is very inappropriate.” 

Vigil said the court security officers were upset about the interaction with Bizzell, “especially being called thieves. That was really upsetting. I gave it a lot of thought, and decided to file a formal complaint with (Valencia County Commission Chairman Gerard Saiz). 

“… if my staff is doing something inappropriate or wrong,  treating the public badly, I deal with them. Why wouldn’t I support them when they’re not in the wrong?” 

Chairman Saiz said he spoke to Bizzell about the formal complaint filed by the sheriff, as well as made the rest of the commissioners, the county manager and county attorneys aware of the complaint. 

“At one point, (Bizzell) reached out to me and asked, ‘What if I was to apologize?’ I told him that was between him, the sheriff and the deputies. ‘I can’t make you and I can’t accept on their behalf,’ I told him.” 

About two weeks after the incident, Saiz said the sheriff wrote a second letter to him indicating Bizzell did apologize to the officers and they were willing to accept. 

Saiz said he did see the video, and the other commissioners arranged to see it individually so as to avoid a quorum.  

“I think the video speaks for itself,” the chairman said. “I have my personal opinion but I’m not going to express it.” 

The sheriff said Bizzell did meet with the officers and apologized and even though  they didn’t feel it was genuine, they  were willing to accept it and move on. 

“There’s nothing that can really be done. They were appreciative that I stuck with them,” she said. “We have to move on.  The commission has always been very supportive of my department, Bizzell included, and because of that (previous support) it made this a bit more distasteful.” 

In regards to the rules of the court, Vigil said her office is charged with protecting the citizens, judges and staff at the district court building “by what means are necessary. As far as I know, the courthouse has always had the x-ray and scanner. In order for someone to enter, we have to ensure nothing is taken in that should not be.” 

The sheriff said while attorneys do have ID cards, if they come in with briefcases or other containers, those are put through the security check. She added that attorneys with the District Attorney’s office and defense attorneys are allowed to bring cell phones into the courthouse.  

“The general public, unless authorized by a judge, cannot bring in a cell phone,” Vigil said. “We don’t make the rules on our own.  Anyone who walks in there should feel safe because that’s what we’re supposed to do.” 

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.