SANTA FE – The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government(FOG) applauds today’s decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court limiting the scope of a provision in state law that shields certain law enforcement records from public disclosure.
In the ruling, the state’s highest court said, “the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), does not create a blanket exception from inspection for law enforcement records relating to an ongoing criminal investigation.”
“This ruling is significant because it makes clear that ‘ongoing investigation’ is not a basis for withholding records,” FOG Executive Director Melanie J. Majors said. “It is also significant that the court said the fact that federal law enforcement is also investigating the criminal matter is not a defense.”
FOG filed an amicus brief in the case asking the state Supreme Court to reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and reinforce its previous ruling that:
- (a) IPRA exemptions are to be narrowly construed;
- (b) the public entity seeking to prevent disclosure has the burden of showing that an IPRA exemption applies to withheld records; and
- (c) courts must undertake fact-specific inquiries as to whether the entity has met its burden, including whether it complied with mandatory production of all non-exempt public records.
Writing the Court’s unanimous opinion, Justice Barbara J. Vigil, said, “Nowhere does the plain language of Section 14-2-1(A)(4) exempt from IPRA inspection requirements all law enforcement records relating to an ongoing criminal investigation.”
The decision makes clear that under IPRA, only ‘law enforcement records that reveal confidential sources, methods, information or individuals accused but not charged with a crime’ are exempt.
The ruling also cleared up an ongoing disagreement between IPRA filers and law enforcement officials that “requested law enforcement records containing both exempt and nonexempt information cannot be withheld in toto.”
The Court reiterated that IPRA requires the records custodian to separate the nonexempt law enforcement information and make it available for public inspection.
The justices unanimously concluded that the district court interpreted the IPRA exception too broadly and wrongly dismissed a public records enforcement lawsuit brought against the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) by the brother of James Boyd. Boyd was shot and killed by Albuquerque police in March 2014.
Following the release of the opinion, Adam Flores, the attorney representing the plaintiff, said, “We are shocked by the longstanding indifference to the terms, spirit and intent of our clear public records laws by some of our taxpayer-funded agencies, particularly the New Mexico State Police. This case is a reminder that the words in the statute matter, and it is a victory for public access to records of police misconduct and police brutality statewide.”
As the state’s leading advocate for transparency in government, FOG’s mission is to defend the public’s right to know and to educate citizens and government agencies about their rights and responsibilities under New Mexico’s open-meetings and open-records laws.