December 2012 - Dog Days in New Mexico

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

I’m living without a dog right now. We have no yard, and I have neither the discipline nor the knees to walk him when I drag myself out of bed or when I drag myself home from work, so I am temporarily—and I emphasize temporarily—sans dog. If I ever retire, I will walk straight from my office to the pound and remedy this sad situation.
I love dogs. I fully agree with Mark Twain’s assessment that, “If heaven were run on merit, we would stay out and our dogs would go in.” Indeed, all the evidence received in the 140 years or so since Twain’s assessment of heavenly entrance requirements has made it blindingly clear that the few humans who make it in are gonna have a lot of dogs to walk.
My father was in the other camp. All you need to know about Dad’s attitude toward dogs is that he named all the dogs in our family. So our dogs were Trouble 1, Trouble 2, and Trouble 3. We owned dogs only seriatim and only because of Mom.
Dad had nothing against dogs qua dogs. He’d pat Trouble’s head and toss a ball for him, and I never heard him complain when Trouble 3 had to have a special—rather expensive—diet. He just thought they were more trouble than they were worth. And since he lived his whole life from paycheck to paycheck, Dad tended to balance cost/benefit rather closely.
After his boys moved out, thus depriving Mom of her best argument in favor of dog ownership, Dad, a Marine with slightly more than a grade school education, picked up a quote from Swedish novelist August Strindberg about dog ownership that sealed the deal for him: “I loathe people who keep dogs. They are cowards who haven’t got the guts to bite people themselves.” 
Where my father would have run across August Strindberg, I have no idea, but Dad was definitely in favor of biting his enemies himself, so it doesn’t surprise me he adopted Strindberg as a kindred spirit.
Mom had a chance against Dad, but Strindberg was too much for her. There were no dogs after Tom and I moved out.
A shame, really. Mom might have had a chance to win this argument today. Strindberg would have had no answer for Vaughn, New Mexico. Vaughn’s only state-certified police officer is a dog.(1)
It wasn’t always so. Vaughn, a town of about 450 people located 104 miles east of Albuquerque, used to have three police officers. There was Chief Armijo, Deputy Bernal, and Nikka the Drug-Sniffing Dog. That’s not exactly an Interpol-level law enforcement force, but it was plenty for a town half the size of the Edison High School senior class.
But last year half the town’s human police force pled guilty to assault and battery against a household member. Under federal law, his plea cost Officer Brian Bernal the right to own a firearm, so he lost his certification.
Now it’s come out that the police chief can’t carry a gun either. Since acknowledging that he owes “tens of thousands of dollars in delinquent child support,” and pleading guilty to felony failure to pay in Texas, Chief Chris Armijo is also unable to carry a firearm. Now, after faking it for months,(2) the Chief has declared himself an ex-Chief and resigned.
That leaves no certified officers in Vaughn. And under New Mexico law, only certified police officers can make arrests.
Into this void steps Nikka. Now Nikka is not exactly Rin Tin Tin, but she is certified under New Mexico law.(3) And she did cost ten thousand dollars!
That’s right. $10,759 to be exact.
Do they have a big drug problem in Vaughn that would justify incurring that much debt on a drug dog? Apparently not. The last drug arrest in Vaughn was beyond human memory. An elephant might remember the last drug arrest, but they don’t have a police elephant in Vaughn. I can only assume a police elephant would have cost more than the $10,759 they spent on the police dog.
As near as I can determine, the dog was purchased because:
(1) A state agency, the New Mexico Finance Authority, was willing to front the town $10,759 to buy the dog. So there was no out-of-pocket cost to Vaughn. Many people find “zero-down-payment financing” hard to resist.
(2) Having a dog justified the purchase of a police department truck prominently marked as a K-9 unit. This unit was parked in front of Chief Armijo’s home, in the backyard of which was Nikka’s kennel.
(3) The Chief was—or the people of Vaughn were—unwilling to bite their enemies themselves.
Unfortunately ex-Chief Armijo never attended the five-day training session required for handlers of certified drug dogs, so there is no one in Vaughn who knows what to do with a drug dog. Asked what the dog was being used for right now, the town’s mayor told Albuquerque television station KRQE, “Right today it doesn’t have no use, no.”
Well, here’s its use. It can be the new police department. Nikka can take over.
After all, according to KRQE, “There hasn’t been an arrest in Vaughn in years.” They say ex-Chief Armijo can’t even remember the last time he wrote a speeding ticket. So Nikka would actually be a step up: She can make an arrest—at least she is legally certified to make an arrest—and she probably has lots of experience chasing but not catching cars.
And . . . she’s a looker. KRQE was a little put out that the ex-Chief would not let them take a picture of the town’s dog,(4) but they somehow managed to find a photo and she’s a beauty. A Belgian Malinois(5) with an eager and intelligent mien. Having a good-looking chief is always a plus for a law enforcement agency. It’s always worked for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
What’s more, it will save the anti-law enforcement denizens of the town—and you know there are some of these(6)—the effort they would otherwise have to expend deriding the chief. It saves them three syllables. They can now delete the phrase “son of a” from their gripes about the police chief, get the same amount of venom out of their system, and not have to worry about being accused of using bad language.
All in all, I think this could work out really well for Vaughn. They say every dog has its day. I think it’s time for Nikka’s.

(1) No, that isn’t a mean thing to say. I mean it literally. It’s a dog. A canine. A fifty-pound bag of saliva (Dad’s description, not mine).
(2) He’s been walking around with a taser on one hip and something like a Mattel Fanner 50 on the other.
(3) I’m not exactly sure what drug dog certification involves in New Mexico. I suspect it’s different from ordinary certification as a law enforcement officer; I’ve never known a human cop who could identify the smell of heroin. But since I don’t have any research attorneys in my role as a columnist, I am—as any appellate attorney will tell you—powerless to investigate this question.
(4) Diagram that sentence and you will realize there is a problem here that no one has yet dealt with. It’s the town’s dog, but the ex-Chief refuses to allow it to make public appearances.
(5) Think German Shepherd. Most of us can’t tell the difference between Belgians and Germans on sight anyway.
(6) Although with no arrests and no speeding tickets, it’s hard to imagine what Vaughn’s citizens have to gripe about.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.