In a decision hailed by open-government advocates, New Mexico’s highest court has reinforced that citizen complaints against police officers are open to public scrutiny.
The Supreme Court decided not to touch a 2010 state Court of Appeals ruling that the Department of Public Safety must release complaints against its law enforcement officers.
The Court of Appeals had rejected the agency’s argument that the complaints were confidential personnel records and therefore not subject to the Inspection of Public Records Act.
Sarah Welsh, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the Supreme Court’s decision reaffirmed the public’s right to know and to hold public officials accountable.
“The Court of Appeals opinion is now good law, and we can refer to it when people request similar documents in the future,” she said in a statement.
The Department of Public Safety went to the Supreme Court after losing in the Court of Appeals.
The high court considered written and oral arguments in the case before deciding unanimously last week not to revisit the Court of Appeals ruling.
That settled a dispute that arose in 2006 when Charles Cox, a former captain with the state Motor Transportation Police Division who had been fired the previous year, sought complaints made by citizens against a patrolman.
Cox had been fired in part for making a racist comment about the patrolman, who was black.
When Cox was denied the records he sued in federal court, claiming he was fired in retaliation for exercising his right to free speech. A federal court ruled against Cox’s civil rights claim but forwarded the public records issue to state court.
A state district court in Santa Fe ruled that the citizen complaints should be kept confidential; the Court of Appeals reversed that ruling.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal
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