NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · NEW MEXICO · Freedom of Information · Feb. 16, 2007
Open-records lawsuit settled
Feb. 16, 2007 · Four New Mexico newspapers and an open government group reached a settlement with public safety officials last week that will give the media access to information from criminal investigations that was formerly withheld.
The four state newspapers and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government sued the Department of Public Safety in 2005, accusing the agency of violating state law by not releasing requested documents.
The Santa Fe New Mexican, Rio Grande Sun, The Albuquerque Tribune, and Albuquerque Journal had requested documents pertaining to two fatal shootings under New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act, which grants the media access to information of “public interest.”
The lawsuit argued that the 2004 shootings are matters of public interest since they involved a state police officer and an Albuquerque firefighter.
According to the settlement, the Department of Public Safety will turn over the requested documents and agreed to pay $125,000 to cover the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.
Furthermore, the settlement says the Department of Public Safety may only withhold public documents in the future when an individual is accused of – but not charged with – a crime, and when releasing the identity of the accused “would pose demonstrable and serious harm to an existing or contemplated criminal prosecution or investigation.”
Robert Johnson, head of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said that state law enforcement officials have a history of secrecy and of employing “spurious excuses” to withhold documents.
“I think that this is a great step in gaining access to public law enforcement records in New Mexico,” Johnson said. “If it succeeds, we will have made great progress.”
(Rio Grande Sun v. New Mexico Department of Public Safety, Media Counsel: Matthew R. Hoyt, Peifer, Hanson & Mullins, P.A., Santa Fe, N.M.) — MA