WED: Park Service Releases Body Cam Video Of Tasing, Businesses Sue Over Virus Restrictions, + More

Dec 30, 2020


US Park Service Releases Video Involving Tasing Of Visitor - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The National Park Service says a man who was tased during a confrontation with a park ranger in New Mexico was seen climbing on and among petroglyph cliff features off-trail.

The federal agency late Tuesday released more details and video of the interaction between the ranger and Darrell House, saying an investigation is ongoing.

The video shows the ranger telling House that Native American tribes from the area consider Petroglyph National Monument as sacred and that visitors are supposed to stay on designated trails to preserve the cultural resources and allow the desert vegetation to recover.

The video also shows House, who identified himself as Navajo and Oneida, giving the ranger a fake name and trying to walk away.

Video taken by House showed the ranger asking for his identification. House told the ranger that he was back on the trail and didn't need to provide his ID.

The ranger told House he was refusing a lawful order and would have to be detained until he could be identified. House again walked away as the ranger told him to stop. House picked up his dog in one hand and lifted up his cellphone in the other and began yelling for help as he was tased.

Video posted by House on social media shows him screaming and rolling on the ground. The ranger repeatedly asks for him to put his hands behind his back as House raises his hands and at times folds them in front of his chest while still calling for help.

House was cited for interfering with agency functions, concealing his identity and being off-trail. House did not return messages from The Associated Press. In his social media posts, he said he goes to the monument to pray and meditate.

The case has been referred to the National Park Service's internal affairs unit. The investigation will include a review of the body camera video, the video posted on social media as well as interviews with officers, those involved and any other witnesses.

Businesses Sue Over New Mexico Coronavirus RestrictionsSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A group of businesses has sued in federal court to try to end New Mexico's COVID-19 public health order.

They claim that Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state health officials have imposed arbitrary and unnecessary rules in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

It's the latest legal challenge to the governor's public health orders. Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court backed her authority to restrict activities during the pandemic.

The lawsuit this week asks the U.S. District Court to override the governor's executive orders and limit any future public health orders to "an extremely limited period of time" unless authorized by state lawmakers. It also asks that the plaintiffs be compensated for lost income during the lockdowns.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported the plaintiffs include three Albuquerque businesses, a Silver City restaurant and a number of individuals.

A spokesman for the state Health Department called it the worst pandemic in a century and said the lawsuit "appears to be out of step with these realities."

State health officials on Wednesday reported 1,316 new COVID-19 cases pushing the total to more than 141,000 since the pandemic began.

There were also 33 additional deaths. The total number of COVID-related deaths among New Mexicans is now 2,436.

The pandemic has had far-reaching social and economic consequences, with many small businesses forced to close for good and increased unemployment.

The state Legislature recently allocated previously unspent federal relief money for some residents. The state Human Services Department announced Tuesday that it has received more than $5 million in federal funding that will pay for $300 one-time payments for low-income households that are behind at least one month on their utility bills.

Catron County Allowed To Relax Virus RestrictionsAssociated Press

The state of New Mexico Wednesday announced that one of New Mexico's 33 counties — Catron County — saw enough improvement in its per-capita daily incidence of new COVID-19 cases and its average test positivity rate to relax some of the public health regulations under the state’s color-coded risk system.

Officials said more than two dozen counties saw improvements in at least one of the two categories while 21 saw improvements in both metrics.

State Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said during a briefing Wednesday that she feels positive so far about the rollout of vaccinations in New Mexico to frontline health care workers and staff and residents at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

In all, the state has ordered and received more than 49,600 doses and 83% of those already have been distributed.

Collins also encouraged people to register online if they're interested in receiving the vaccination when it becomes more widely available. She reported that 160,000 people had signed up within an eight-day period.

While the state is still in the planning stages for later phases of distribution, she said the registrations would help as the state prioritizes which groups come next.

New Mexico Judge Says Public School Building Funding UnfairAssociated Press, Albuquerque Journal

A New Mexico judge has ruled that the state's system for funding the construction of buildings in public school districts is unconstitutional and ordered officials to devise a fair system.

The ruling by 11th Judicial District Court Judge Louis E. DePauli Jr. on Tuesday said the funding system was not properly equitable.

Democratic state Rep. Patty Lundstrom says lawmakers should change the system in the upcoming 60-day legislative session. 

Democratic state Sen. Mimi Stewart believes that some parts of the judge's ruling don't accurately describe the state's capital outlay funding and that the state should appeal the order.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Stewart was not specific as to what inaccuracies she was referring to.

DePauli said in his report that the current system makes "property-poor" districts pay more in taxes but receive less.

Former Police Officer Sentenced In Vehicular Homicide CaseRoswell Daily Record, Associated Press

A former police officer in southern New Mexico has been sentenced to more than a decade behind bars for his involvement in a deadly crash.

Luke Maxwell Towner had pleaded guilty in October to charges that include vehicular homicide and driving under the influence.

The Roswell Daily Record reports that the 31-year-old Tularosa resident was sentenced earlier this month. Court documents say Towner was speeding when he ran into another vehicle at an intersection in Roswell last December.

Doug Annis was in the back seat of the other vehicle and died. Two others were injured in the wreck.

Towner, who is now 31, told authorities he had been drinking whiskey earlier that night and was responsible for the wreck, court documents state.

Towner served as a police officer in Alamogordo from 2013 to 2016, city officials said.

2 Albuquerque Churches Fined $5K For Virus Safety Violations Associated Press

New Mexico officials have fined two Albuquerque megachurches for violating the state's public health orders aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 after both venues held large gatherings for Christmas.

The state Department of Health fined Legacy Church and Calvary Church $5,000 each on Monday after photos and video showed both churches violated orders limiting occupancy, mandating masks and practicing social distancing.

A spokesman for the governor said the leaders and congregation at the two churches violated state regulations.

Legacy Church officials accused the state of trampling on their constitutional rights. Calvary Church's pastor said they urged people to follow guidelines and blocked every other row to practice social distancing.

More than 139,000 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 2,403 have died as of Tuesday.

Health officials on Tuesday reported an additional 1,221 confirmed infections, including 23 among inmates at the Lea County Correctional Facility and 9 cases at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Navajo Nation Reports 153 New Virus Cases, Four More Deaths - Associated Press

Officials on the Navajo Nation say they're seeing improvement in the number of cases reported daily on the reservation. But they're concerned about the impact of holiday gatherings not yet reflected in the latest numbers. 

They're urging people to celebrate the New Year with only the people in their immediate household. 

Health officials on Tuesday reported 153 new cases of the coronavirus and 4 more deaths. The figures bring the total number of cases on the reservation to 22,526. The death toll is 781.

Tribal officials have scheduled a virtual meeting Thursday to provide pandemic information and updates. Navajo President Jonathan Nez said he and other tribal officials will be vaccinated against COVID-19 during that meeting.

US Park Service Says New Mexico Tasing Case Is Under Review KOB-TV, Associated Press, KUNM

The National Park Service says it's investigating an incident in which a man was tased by a ranger at Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico.

Darrell House was stopped Sunday by the ranger for walking in a closed area off trail in violation of park regulations. Video taken by House shows the ranger asking for his identification. House declines, insisting he hadn't done anything wrong.

The ranger told House he was refusing a lawful order and that he would have to be detained until he could be identified.

Video posted by House on social media then shows the ranger tasing House while he screams for help and rolls on the ground. The ranger repeatedly asks for him to put his hands behind his back as House raises his hands and at times folds them in front of his chest while still calling for help.

House, who said he was unarmed, eventually sits down as another ranger arrives and places him in handcuffs.

House was cited for interfering with agency functions, concealing his identity and being off trail, KOB-TV reported. House did not return messages from The Associated Press.

In his social media posts, House identified himself as Navajo and Oneida and said he goes to the monument to pray.

Situated along the western edge of Albuquerque, the monument encompasses one of North America's largest petroglyph sites. The volcanic rocks that make up the monument's desert escarpment are covered with designs and symbols carved by early Indigenous inhabitants and later Spanish settlers.

House told the television station he didn’t harm anyone and was practicing his religious rights on his ancestral land.

U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, both Democrats representing New Mexico, released a joint statement professing shock over the video and calling for an immediate investigation.

Regional officials with the National Park Service told The Associated Press in a statement Monday that the case has been referred to the agency's internal affairs unit for review.

House's video spurred criticism on social media and fueled ongoing nationwide concerns about excessive force by law enforcement. In Albuquerque, the city's police department has been the target of U.S. Justice Department oversight and court-ordered reforms for previous excessive force complaints.

The city's Office of Equity and Inclusion issued a statement Tuesday, calling the video disturbing. The office said it had reached out to the National Park Service and expected a thorough, transparent and speedy investigation.

Audit Reveals Mishandled City Funds In Las CrucesAssociated Press

An audit released by the Office of the New Mexico State Auditor has revealed more than $1.8 million in mishandled or misused city funds related to the Las Cruces Convention and Visitors Bureau and various city-sponsored events.

The audit made public Tuesday also identified what officials described as serious conflicts of interest.

The investigation spanned nearly a year and included a review of millions of pages of documentation.

Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said the findings already have resulted in changes.

The city has updated internal controls and policies, implemented an ordinance focused on accountability in government and restructured its internal audit office. Oversight committees also have been named.

The auditor's office said the report has been referred to the state attorney general's office for further review.

New Year Brings New Oversight Of Vaping, Student Debt - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

With the start of the new year, New Mexico authorities will be increasing oversight of tobacco and e-cigarette businesses to prevent child access.

The state is taking a more assertive approach to the regulation of tobacco products by requiring licenses for the sale, distribution or manufacture of all tobacco products.

On July 1, New Mexico increased the minimum age limit to 21 for the purchase of all tobacco products including vaping products.

Repeated infractions can lead to fines of up to $10,000 and license revocation.

The changes come as a new statewide minimum wage also takes effect Friday. New Mexico's minimum wage is increasing to $10.50 a hour, up from $9.

And a new consumer protection law takes aim at the student debt crisis with financial disclosure requirements for private colleges and universities.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos and Democratic Sen. Liz Stefanics of Santa Fe, also require disclosures about the financial obligations for students who cancel their studies before graduation.

A 2019 study by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and partner organizations found that New Mexico had the second highest student loan default rate in the U.S. with more than 1 in 5 student loan borrowers listed in as severely delinquent on debts.