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Court rejects plan to seal juvenile records

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Citing the “general rule of transparency” and the “absence of a clear legislative statement,” the state Supreme Court has rejected a set of proposed rule changes that would have sealed records in many juvenile criminal cases.

The amendments were approved and implemented last year only to be suspended days later to allow more time for public input.

In a Dec. 20 order, the Supreme Court rescinded that amendment altogether; Justices Judith Nakamura, Petra Jimenez Maes, Charles Daniels and Gary Clingman concurred, and Justice Barbara Vigil dissented.

The rules committee that crafted the proposed amendments had written that automatically sealing records in delinquency proceedings “is consistent with the trend of protecting the privacy of children who come in contact with the courts, particularly in the digital age.”

But the Supreme Court order said: “In the absence of a clear legislative statement of public policy requiring the automatic and immediate sealing of any court record filed in a delinquency proceeding, and in light of the general rule of transparency that guides all New Mexico courts, this court declines to adopt the proposed amendments recommended by the committee and wishes to rescind the amendments … that were suspended by order of the court on January 9, 2018.”

Comments submitted to the court before its decision were split on the proposed amendments.

“The collateral consequences of a public juvenile record are crippling,” wrote Mary Ann Scali, executive director of the National Juvenile Defender Center. “Public access to juvenile records creates overwhelming obstacles to a young person’s future opportunities to fulfill their education, social, and professional potential – contradicting the goal of juvenile court to be rehabilitative rather than punitive.”

Opponents said the changes would deprive the public of its right to follow juvenile cases and to assess those involved in the justice system, including judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and law enforcement officials. Some cited past high-profile cases involving serious crimes committed by juveniles in which the public would have been barred from most information.

Melanie Majors, executive director of the Foundation for Open Government, said Wednesday that the group “concurs with the Supreme Court that the public must have access to court records including delinquency proceedings.” She said openness ensures that proceedings are fair to all parties and that the public has confidence in the process.

The court did approve a small amendment to one section of the existing rule in an attempt to clarify that the only records that are to be sealed automatically are those already outlined in state statute, including diagnostic evaluations, social records and psychiatric and medical reports. The rules committee behind the proposal wrote that portions of the existing rule had been subject to varying interpretations.

“The result was a patchwork of public access to court records in delinquency cases,” according to the committee.

Access to courts

In a separate order Dec. 20, the Supreme Court approved an amendment that allows the broadcasting, photographing and recording of proceedings in magistrate courts, which usually hear the less serious cases.

Cameras and recordings were already allowed in Metropolitan Court, which serves Bernalillo County, as well as in state district and appeals courts.

In a letter endorsing the amendments, NMFOG wrote that there is no sound public policy reason for the camera blackout in magistrate courts. Allowing cameras and broadcasting gives access to people unable to attend the proceedings in person.