Complaints about the conduct of U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers have led El Dorado County Sheriff John D'Agostini to suspend their authority to enforce state laws in the county effective next month.
Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Tim Becker said he could not elaborate on the specific complaints, saying that the sheriff was handling them as he would a personnel matter.
He said the sheriff had received multiple complaints from citizens regarding the actions ofU.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers in El Dorado County.
"He has been addressing these issues for many months with the USFS administration and feels that the issues have not been resolved to meet the standards that he requires of Sheriff's Office personnel," Becker said.
The California Penal Code states that officers of the U.S. Forest Service "have no authority to enforce California statutes without the written consent of the sheriff or chief of police in whose jurisdiction they are assigned."
In granting authority to Forest Service officers, Becker said, the sheriff was backing them, but he didn't have the authority to discipline them when their conduct failed to meet his standards.
"If they were Sheriff's Office employees, he could take personnel action," Becker said.
In a June 17 letter to Scott Harris, regional special agent in charge at the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Region offices in Vallejo, D'Agostini said he was terminating the cooperative law enforcement agreement between the Sheriff's Department and the Forest Service effective July 22.
Harris said the letter was the first indication he had had of the sheriff's issues with Forest Service law enforcement personnel. These are not rangers, but "uniformed patrol officers with a badge and a gun," he said.
Six officers, supervised by a patrol captain, are assigned to the Eldorado National Forest along with two crime investigators, special agents who handle long-term investigations, Harris said.
In the forest, they enforce laws regarding fire, timber and other forest products, fish and wildlife, protection of property and disorderly conduct. The federal laws they enforce typically pertain to property crimes and protection of natural resources, while the state and local laws deal with crimes against people, Harris said.
The sheriff's action does not affect the officers' authority to enforce federal laws.
Harris said he met with D'Agostini on Wednesday to discuss the matter.
"We had a very good meeting. We were able to address issues that have arisen," Harris said, adding that he plans to look into the sheriff's concerns.
While expressing disappointment that D'Agostini declined to reverse his decision, Harris said, "I respect his position."
With termination of the agreement, he said, Forest Service officers will no longer be authorized to issue citations for Vehicle Code violations, such as speeding, driving without headlights after dark or having expired registration, on forest lands or adjoining property.
It also will affect the ability of Forest Service personnel to enforce firearms laws, such as the prohibition of modifications that can turn firearms into assault rifles.
"We have enforced that," Harris said.
And if, in enforcing federal law, Forest Service officers encounter individuals with outstanding warrants for state offenses, the officers will no longer be able to arrest them on those warrants, but will instead notify the Sheriff's Department.
Becker said sheriff's deputies and Forest Service officers have had a good professional relationship.
"On the line level, we work well together one on one," he said.
Harris said he expects the two agencies to continue to cooperate with one another.
"The key thing is we've committed to share investigative information and they've committed to do the same," Harris said. "That was a concern for us."
Making sure that each agency knows what the other is doing in the forest, he said, is important for the safety of Forest Service and sheriff's personnel as well as the public.
"The sheriff did say that down the road he would be willing to revisit the authority issue," Harris said.