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State agency faces sizable fine for withholding public records

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         NEW MEXICO         Freedom of Information         Oct 24, 2001    

State agency faces sizable fine for withholding public records

  • A state district judge cited the New Mexico Department of Public Safety for failing to respond to an attorney’s public records request, ordering it to pay nearly $29,000 in damages.

A New Mexico judge recently imposed heavy fines against the state Department of Public Safety, following an attorney’s unsuccessful attempts to procure arrest records from the agency using freedom of information laws.

In a written ruling released Sept. 28, District Judge Sam B. Sanchez ordered the department to pay Judith Cooper nearly $29,000 in damages for failing to provide either the arrest records or justification for withholding them, said Robert Beck, Cooper’s attorney.

Sanchez issued the ruling because public safety officials failed to respond to both Cooper’s initial request and a subsequent court order aimed at dislodging a response from the agency, Beck said.

“Not only did they not give up the records,” Beck said, “they called on the phone and said, ‘You’re not getting the records.'”

“In this case, they just blew us all off. They never responded to the judge,” he said.

Public safety officials initially replied to Cooper with a phone call, saying they didn’t have the arrest reports but did have a criminal rap sheet. The rap sheet, they said, was not a public record.

Court records show that Cooper never received any written response to her requests.

According to New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act, agencies must furnish public records within 15 days of a written request or provide a written explanation about why the request was denied. For every day after the deadline has passed, an agency can be liable for up to $100 a day in damages.

While this case is unusual in that a court punished a state agency with heavy fines, Albert Fugere, the department’s deputy chief counsel, claims the suit is not over.

Fugere said the agency was negotiating a settlement out of court with Cooper when their deadline lapsed. Fugere believes the fine should be set aside, and he lodged numerous motions to try to accomplish that.

“We are contesting whether or not it was proper for the court to issue fines without allowing us an opportunity to contest the issue,” Fugere said.

(Cooper v. New Mexico Dep’t of Public Safety; Requester’s counsel, Robert Beck, Beck & Cooper, Clayton, N.M.) GR

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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