FARMINGTON — On Friday, a Farmington attorney will become San Juan County's first federal magistrate judge in more than 20 years. His appointment is expected to bring a stronger federal law enforcement presence to the region.
B. Paul Briones, a Farmington attorney, will be sworn in during a ceremony in an Albuquerque federal court on Friday. He will be a part-time judge and his appointment is for four years, he said.
Officials with the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico didn't respond on Monday to calls seeking information on the magistrate judge position. But Briones and the San Juan County sheriff and district attorney confirmed that Briones will soon become a part-time federal magistrate judge based in San Juan County.
San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen said assigning a federal magistrate judge in San Juan County will lead to a stronger federal law enforcement presence throughout the area. He said there will eventually be more FBI agents, Homeland Security agents and U.S. Marshals deputies working in San Juan County because of the decision to place a magistrate judge here.
"Having a federal magistrate is the cornerstone of bringing in more of a federal presence," Christesen said.
Christesen said U.S. Homeland Security agents work closely with local law enforcement who are in the Region II Narcotics Task Force. He said having a federal judge in the county could result in more methamphetamine trafficking investigations that result in federal charges.
In late February, 13 people were charged in federal court with drug trafficking crimes and 12 people were charged in state court with drug trafficking crimes in connection to the task force's 18-month investigation into a methamphetamine trafficking ring in San Juan County.
San Juan County District Attorney Rick Tedrow said he has been communicating with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of New Mexico about allowing prosecutors in his office to be "cross-commissioned" so they could handle the initial stages of federal prosecutions. He said nothing has been finalized.
In addition to homeland security agents who work on the anti-narcotics task force, there is an FBI Farmington Field Office that investigates bank robberies and crimes on the Navajo Nation. And there are U.S. Marshals Service deputies on a Southwest Fugitive Investigative Team that hunt for state and federal fugitives. The team is active in San Juan County.
Last week, a U.S. Marshal on that team shot a car-chase suspect at the intersection of Butler Avenue and 20th Street. The suspect later died at the hospital.
Investigations conducted by those federal law enforcement agencies and teams will likely be the cases that are presented to the San Juan County federal magistrate judge, Briones said.
Briones said it's not clear when he will start working as judge or where his courtroom will be.
He said court administrators are trying to find space for him in an existing courthouse.
The federal magistrate judge will approve federal search and arrest warrants and rule on presentment hearings against defendants charged in federal court.
In a presentment hearing, a judge hears evidence in the case and rules on whether there is probable cause that the defendant committed the crime. The hearings are similar to preliminary hearing in magistrate courts.
Briones would become the 10th federal magistrate judge in New Mexico and the second part-time magistrate judge. The other part-time judge is in Roswell.
Three of the full-time magistrate judges are in Albuquerque and five are in Las Cruces, according to New Mexico's federal court's website.
Briones has been a Farmington attorney for 18 years. He said he plans to continue working as a private attorney while he works the part-time federal judge position. Most of his law practice deals with matters of business, real estate and trusts.
He said his father, Felix Briones, a Farmington attorney, and Federal Magistrate Judge Robert Hayes Scott convinced him to apply for the position.
Briones said he wants to be a judge, but doesn't want to run for office and be elected to a judge position. Federal judges and federal magistrate judges are appointed.
"This is attractive to me because it's by appointment and the renewal, if there is one, will be by the chief judge and the other federal district court judges. I'm happy about my merits and my ability but I don't want to be a politician. I don't want to run for an office," Briones said. "But being a judge is attractive to me. I think it's a tremendously important position."
Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel on Twitter.