BLACKFOOT — Bingham County Sheriff Craig Rowland was ordered to surrender all firearms at an initial court appearance Wednesday.
Rowland, 62, is charged with two felonies — aggravated battery and aggravated assault — and a misdemeanor — use or exhibition of a deadly weapon — after an incident near his home on Nov. 9.
Jeff Nye, the lead deputy attorney general for the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, also requested the court require Rowland to take a leave of absence during the court proceedings.
“The state finds it hard to believe that the public would be able to see integrity in this court process if it allows the defendant to remain the chief law enforcement officer of the county while facing these allegations,” Nye argued.
That request, however, was denied by Fremont County Magistrate Judge Faren Eddins.
The Idaho Attorney General’s Office filed charges against the sheriff following an investigation into alleged threats made by Rowland against a group of teenagers and their Latter-day Saint youth group leader.
On the evening of Nov. 9, the small church group was going around the neighborhood placing thank-you cards on the front doors of neighbors, ringing their doorbells and then running away. Rowland, one of those neighbors, heard the group at his door and stepped out of his home to investigate.
An affidavit of probable cause says Rowland stopped the vehicle that held the youth group. He allegedly drew a pistol, pulled a woman through the window of the vehicle and threatened her with his gun to her head.
Calls for Rowland’s resignation have since come from numerous public officials and law enforcement officers.
Although evidence is not presented until a preliminary hearing, Nye informed the court of, what he called, the state’s strong case against Rowland.
According to Nye, the prosecution plans to call on eight eyewitnesses — all of whom provided accounts of the incident that were consistent with each other and corroborated by statements provided by Rowland. The prosecution will also present a video.
The video, Nye said, does not show the incident. Instead, it allegedly shows Rowland step out of his home before the incident. In the video, according to Nye, Rowland looks at the thank you card and responds, “Bulls***, get my gun.”
This piece of evidence, Nye argued, provided the court with reason to mandate a leave of absence for Rowland.
“Any person who responds to that kind of harmless conduct, that is well-intentioned on its base, by equipping himself with a gun and initiating an extremely dangerous and potentially fatal confrontation is a risk to public safety,” he said.
Rowland’s attorney, Justin Olesen, argued that the prosecution’s case was not as strong as it believes.
“(We) strongly disagree with the state’s version of the facts,” he said.
Olesen claimed the investigation by the state attorney general was more of an attack on Rowland.
“This is not an investigation. This is political,” he said. “… All the attorney general is trying to do is try to remove Mr. Rowland from his position.”
Eddins said his court would not be concerned with politics. His court’s only concern, he said, is Idaho law.
Nye denied Olesen’s claim. He restated the prosecution wanted Rowland to take a leave of absence until a resolution was reached and that they were not seeking for him to be removed from office.
Eddins denied the prosecution’s request, saying that the court must presume a defendant’s innocence until they are proven guilty. He said that in treating the defendant as the court would any other person, that Rowland would be required to surrender his guns, including personal firearms and those to which he has access while on duty, for the safety of the public.
Following Eddins’ ruling that Rowland would be required to surrender his firearms to Idaho State Police, Olesen made the case for those guns being placed in the custody of either the Bingham County Sheriff’s Office or Blackfoot Police Department.
Nye argues that Rowland being the top official at the county sheriff’s office, placing his firearms in that agency’s custody would allow his access too easily. The prosecutor also noted that Blackfoot police have requested to be left out of this case entirely.
Eddins stuck by his ruling that the state police would assume custody of Rowland’s firearms, which would be held at the agency’s Pocatello office rather than ISP headquarters in Boise.
Nye also requested no-contact orders for three of the juvenile victims of the incident.
Olesen argued after discussions between himself and the parents of the minor victims, only one was necessary.
According to Olesen, one parent insisted upon a no-contact order, while another was indifferent and two others did not want such protections.
Nye countered that argument.
“The state is only asking for no-contact orders for the three minor victims whose parents requested them,” he said. “Any suggestion that the other parents think this is not a big deal is simply not true. We had multiple parents contact us last night after Mr. Olesen called them.”
At least one of those parents, Nye said, interpreted the conversation as Olesen attempting to convince them not to get a no-contact order.
That parent said that if they were with their daughter in public and they saw the sheriff, “I would grab her, and we would leave immediately, no matter the circumstances,” Nye said.
Eddins told both Olesen and Nye that a no-contact order would be issued for the victim whose parents were set on requesting it. As for the others, Nye was tasked with following up with those parents and confirming their requests. Any victim who requested a no-contact order would receive one, Eddins said.
In response, Olesen requested his client be provided photos of the victims whom he was ordered by the court to refrain from contacting. Nye agreed.
Witness testimony and evidence will be presented at a preliminary hearing, which was scheduled for Jan. 26, at which time Eddins will determine the need for a jury trial.
If he is found guilty, Rowland could face up to 15 years for the aggravated battery and as many as five years for the aggravated assault. He could also face up to six months for using or exhibiting a deadly weapon, and a total of up to $56,000 in fines for all charges.
In addition, Eddins informed Rowland on Wednesday of the prosecution’s intent to add firearm enhancements to both the battery and assault charges. Those enhancements would add up to 15 years to each sentence.