Paul Briones sits in his office on March 17 at Briones Law Firm on Auburn Avenue in Farmington. Briones has been sworn in as a part-time magistrate judge.
Paul Briones sits in his office on March 17 at Briones Law Firm on Auburn Avenue in Farmington. Briones has been sworn in as a part-time magistrate judge. (Megan Farmer / The Daily Times)

FARMINGTON Federal Magistrate Judge B. Paul Briones was sworn in as a part-time federal judge on Friday, and he can start ruling on matters immediately.

Briones is the fourth part-time federal magistrate judge to serve in Farmington. Seth V. Bingham was appointed in 1993, Reed Leon Frost in 1973 and John R. Phillips Jr. in 1971, according to court records.

Briones is expected to rule on search and arrest warrants presented by federal agents. He will also preside over initial hearings shortly after arrests, in which defendants are assigned counsel and the court checks to see if they understand the charges against them, said Mitchell Elfers, the chief deputy clerk for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.

The judge decides the location to rule on those matters, he said.

Briones could not be reached for comment on Monday or Tuesday. A person who answered the phone at his office said he was out of town.

Kea W. Riggs, the part-time federal magistrate judge in Roswell, and Robert Ionta, a former part-time magistrate judge in Gallup, handled much of the legal matters at their law offices, Elfers said.

"In federal court, it's the judge's decision on how they proceed," he said.

Elfers said initial plans are for cases in front of Briones to be transferred to U.S. District Court in Albuquerque for preliminary examinations and detention hearings after the initial hearing.

Bingham, who served as a federal magistrate judge in Farmington for about two years in the 1990s, said the majority of the work he did when he held the position was to review search and arrest warrants and preside over initial hearings for felony crimes the FBI investigated on the Navajo Nation. He said almost all of that work was done out of his Farmington law office.

He said he also ruled on misdemeanor cases investigated by law enforcement from the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service.

Elfers said the clerk's office didn't have a list of the federal agencies that are expected to have cases in front of Briones. He directed those questions to the U.S. Attorney's Office of the District of New Mexico. That office could not be reached for comment on Monday and Tuesday.

Among the law enforcement agents active in San Juan County are those with the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen has said a federal magistrate judge in San Juan County will help those agencies have a stronger presence. He said local law enforcement welcomes that trend, because convictions in federal court carry longer prison sentences than those in state court.

Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and rboetel@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel on Twitter.