Craig Mayor Ryan Hess steps down from Moffat County Sheriff’s Office to start practicing law
After decades working as a law enforcement officer, Craig Mayor Ryan Hess served his last day at the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday, Dec. 1, following his unexpected journey through law school into being a private attorney.
After 20 years in law enforcement, Hess said he is ready for a change, but it’s not because of any of the reforms that law enforcement agencies face across the country. Instead, Hess said he has been on his own path, seeking to learn everything he can about the criminal justice system, which led him to becoming a lawyer.
After his last day with Moffat County Sheriff’s Office, Hess will join the Cannon Law Office, where he intends to work on a variety of different local needs including family law and some criminal defense cases.
When Hess started law school more than six years ago, he didn’t set out to become an attorney. Rather, he wanted to learn more about the criminal justice system, believing that knowledge would help him be a more well-rounded law enforcement officer.
Because the nearest accredited law program in the state was in Denver and Hess had no plans to relocate, he enrolled in an online program based out of California to begin his studies.
Although the online law program that Hess completed covers the same information and testing standards as brick-and-mortar schools, it wasn’t a direct path into practicing law. In order to sit for the Colorado bar exam, the state actually required completion of an in-person law program or three years of licensed practice in another state.
“If anyone thinks I went to law school just to be a lawyer, it really wasn’t possible at the time,” Hess said.
However, after putting in the time and jumping through all the hoops, Hess completed law school and was able to petition the Colorado Supreme Court to let him sit for the Colorado Bar Exam. His argument was the only difference between the online program and brick-and-mortar schools is the building.
Hess also pointed out there‘s considerable lack of legal services in Moffat County, which has a population of 13,185, according to the 2022 U.S. Census, and less than five practicing attorneys. Hess added that the lack of local attorneys is not because there’s no work here.
According to Hess, having a local network and joining an established practice should help jumpstart his law career, and he thinks there will be plenty of local people to help and gain experience from along the way.
The interest in law enforcement began in high school when Hess would do ride-alongs with local officers. He also joined the first group to do the State Patrol Youth Academy, and he got to spend a week at the Camp George West training facility near Golden.
A few months after graduating from Moffat County High School, Hess joined the Craig Police Department as a code enforcement officer. From there, he went on to earn a bachelor‘s degree in sociology with a concentration in criminal justice. Through college, Hess served as a firefighter cadet and an EMT on the Palisade Fire Protection District.
In 2004, Hess enrolled in the Rangely Police Academy and became an officer in Rangely as soon as he was 21 years old and eligible. After a few short months, Hess wanted to return to Craig, so he joined the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office.
Hess has served in multiple roles with the sheriff’s office since then, first as a road deputy and later on the regional drug task force. Over that time, Hess served as a lieutenant, jail administrator and also completed a master‘s degree.
Going through the court process for a major federal drug case where Hess got to work on the trial preparation alongside an assistant U.S. attorney helped spark his interest in law school.
“It was so much different than assisting with local court cases,” Hess said. “I learned a lot more about what lawyers did, and I decided to pull the trigger on a Ph.D. program.”
But at the time, he still had no intention on being a practicing attorney.
“I wanted to be a well-rounded cop and get a 360 view of the whole process,” Hess said of his reasons.
Still, law school added 20 to 40 hours of homework per week for Hess, in addition to him serving in his full-time role with the sheriff’s office. After passing the first-year law exam, he continued his way through the program.
From 2017-19, Hess served as a patrol officer for Colorado State Patrol. He rejoined the sheriff‘s office in 2019 and finished law school in 2020. After that, Hess finally decided to go into practicing law, as he was working through a moot court where law students got the chance to practice arguments using real case examples.
Hess had a month to review all the information and prepare a brief that would go in front of a three-judge panel including a U.S. Supreme Court judge. The moot trial ended up being canceled because of the pandemic, but the experience still tipped Hess toward wanting to go into law.
Hess asking the Colorado Supreme Court to allow him to sit for the state bar exam was something the court had never done before, so in the beginning it didn’t look too promising. But the decision came out in his favor, and Hess took the Colorado bar exam in July and got his results in October. He plans to start practicing after his last week with the sheriff‘s office.
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