The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office ruled on Monday that the City of Rio Rancho cannot withhold police records involving juveniles.
The decision took the form of a letter dated March 7, addressed to City Attorney Greg Lauer and copied to Observer news editor Argen Marie Duncan. In it, NMAG’s Office Senior Civil Counsel Olga M. Serafimova writes that the city’s policy of refusing to release police reports and 911 calls related to incidents in which a minor was a victim or suspect violates the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA).
Lauer and some other city officials have cited the state Children’s Code as the reason for denying the records. State law makes civil court proceedings in abuse and neglect cases and information from certain juvenile-justice entities confidential.
Serafimova said the city’s reliance on the Abuse and Neglect Act and the Delinquency Act “appears untenable and unsupported by the statutes themselves.”
“The city’s denial of Ms. Duncan’s requests therefore appears to be at odds with its statutory duty to provide the public access to ‘the greatest possible information’ about its affairs, Section 14-2-5, while also representing a decision that may subject the city to unnecessary and potentially costly litigation,” she wrote.
She urged the city to take prompt remedial action and alter its public records practices. To read the entirety of her letter as sent to the city and the Observer, click here.
The situation stems from the fall of 2019, when the city changed it public records practices and refused to release police reports involving minors. After being unable to resolve the issue, the Observer filed an official complaint with the state Attorney General’s Office in November 2020.
Earlier this year, the matter expanded and came to a head when the city refused requests from multiple news organizations for preliminary police reports and the 911 call recording in the gunshot death of 2-year-old Lincoln Harmon this past December.
In her letter, Serafimova wrote that IPRA guarantees New Mexicans access to the greatest possible amount of information on governmental affairs with only limited, specific exceptions.
She writes that state law makes confidential all information “concerning a party to a neglect or abuse proceeding,” which is defined as a special, civil proceeding in Children’s Court that could result in the termination of parental rights. Criminal prosecutions are not Children’s Code neglect or abuse proceedings, she continued.
“Based on the facts, as we understand them, and to the extent the city relied on Section 32A-4-33(A) to withhold records responsive to Ms. Duncan’s Oct. 12, 2020, records request, it is our conclusion that the city violated IPRA in doing so,” Serafimova said.
The Delinquency Act makes confidential the records “obtained by the juvenile probation office, parole officers and the juvenile public safety board or in possession of the (Children, Youth and Families) department” in cases of minors being charged with crimes.
Serafimova wrote that the Attorney General’s IPRA Guide has long maintained that there’s no law protecting juvenile arrest records. She said multiple legal bodies have interpreted the Delinquency Act to protect only records obtained from the entities mentioned in that act, not from law enforcement agencies or courts.
“This interpretation is consistent with the fact that all hearings in juvenile proceedings are generally open to the public,” she continued.
She cited several other legal provisions that the AG’s Office believes indicate implicitly that juvenile arrest records should be public information. Serafimova wrote that ambiguity within parts of the law should be subjected to the rule of lenity, which mandates lenience if it doesn’t conflict with legislative intent.
“As such, we feel compelled to interpret the Delinquency’s Act confidentiality provision as not applicable to juvenile arrest and other law enforcement records,” she said.