Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

A state district judge ruled Friday that the city of Rio Rancho violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act in denying requests for law enforcement records related to the initial police investigation of the December 2021 fatal shooting death of a 2-year-old boy at his family’s home.

Sandoval County District Judge James Noel found the records, which include a Rio Rancho police incident report and 911 recordings, were public under IPRA. Noel rejected the argument by the city that the records were confidential under the state Children’s Code.

“What we’re looking at is a fairly narrow request for public records,” Noel said after a 90-minute hearing on the matter.

Noel said he didn’t believe the Legislature intended that the confidentiality provisions cited by Rio Rancho, which cover abuse and neglect proceedings and juvenile delinquency matters, extended to the law enforcement records created after the death of Lincoln Harmon, the son of a Santa Fe police officer.

The boy’s death was eventually ruled accidental, after his 4-year-old brother told investigators he was reaching for his father’s gun on the counter and the weapon discharged.

The judge on Friday required the police records be made available to the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, which along with the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government filed suit in March seeking a ruling that the records sought weren’t confidential. The Rio Rancho Observer was among newspapers seeking the information.

Noel asked FOG attorney Charles “Kip” Purcell to compile the amount of attorneys fees and costs the city of Rio Rancho, as the unsuccessful party in the case, would be required to pay under the provisions of IPRA.

Attorney Michael Heitz, who represented the city at Friday’s hearing, said he didn’t know whether his client planned to appeal.

For months, the boy’s death was shrouded in mystery as numerous other news media outlets, including the Albuquerque Journal, were stymied in their attempts to obtain law enforcement records that have been historically made available by New Mexico law enforcement agencies.

But Noel on Friday found the interpretation of the law presented by the city could end up keeping the public in the dark about police investigations into children’s deaths.

Noel’s ruling echoed an opinion by the state Attorney General’s Office in March that the requested records were public. That spurred Lauer to accuse Attorney General Hector Balderas of being “unable or unwilling to defend the rights of children or families.”

Balderas, in turn, called Lauer’s response “insulting” and urged Rio Rancho officials to obey the law and produce the records. Balderas’ office in April ended up releasing a 53-page report into the death by Rio Rancho police.

Balderas told the Journal that transparency laws protect children “especially in light of these tragic circumstances.”

Balderas has asked an independent team to review the case, but a final conclusion hasn’t yet been made public.

Rio Rancho has continued to withhold such police records, but the city did release a statement earlier this year that, “In the event that a court rules that the requested records and information are releasable to the general public, which includes media entities, the City will not only comply with the court order and rule of law, but also continue to work with legislators in order to update and modernize IPRA and other sections of New Mexico law.”