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Editorial: SB 118 well intentioned, but weakens due process

Once again, well-intentioned legislation in the Roundhouse is being touted as a way to protect the identities of sexual assault victims, when in reality it’s a way to circumvent due process and shield those who would make false accusations.

Senate Bill 118, sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, is a reconstituted version of his SB 149, which was vetoed in 2017. This time around, it’s on Democratic lawmakers’ “rocket docket,” meaning along with 37 other bills it will be fast-tracked through committees next week while receiving minimal, if any, scrutiny.

Top-ranking Democrats have said the “rocket docket” is a way to show New Mexicans that lawmakers are serious about having a productive session. That’s one interpretation. It’s also a way to ram though legislation without having to answer too many questions. It’s a way to disenfranchise 19 brand new House members who will get little chance to debate it in committee.

While most bills go to two or three committees in each chamber, those on the “rocket docket” only have one hearing.

House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, calls it “a dereliction of duty.”

And that methodology has no place when dealing with the legal system and crime victims.

SB 118 would amend the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act to allow law enforcement agencies to keep secret anything in police reports that would reveal the identity of victims of, or non-law enforcement witnesses to, six crimes before charges are filed.

Those are: assault with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration; assault against a household member with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration; stalking; aggravated stalking; criminal sexual penetration; and criminal sexual contact.

Those are awful crimes, and the desire to protect victims is understandable. That’s why local news media have policies against reporting alleged sexual assault victims’ names in criminal cases unless they choose to go public.

But go beyond the raw emotion a sexual assault evokes. Remember that our country’s system of jurisprudence and due process can be antiseptic, messy and everything in between, yet it remains the foundation of our legal system. And that includes a justice system based on due process, giving both accuser and accused their legal rights. And it’s based on the ability to follow an accusation through to see if law enforcement did its job or if justice was served.

It’s much more difficult to follow a case and judge how law enforcement handled it without the identities of all involved. Do we as a state want to shield incompetency or worse when it comes to investigations of these crimes, adding insult to the victims’ injuries? Do we want to shield false accusers and leave the falsely accused out there alone?

Let’s say you’re a successful businessman or woman, and someone files a false allegation against you. What if it’s someone who has a history of filing false reports? This accuser’s name is kept secret while your name is public. That person is protected while your reputation alone is on the line for all to see. Is that justice?

Candelaria’s SB 118 preys on the reasonable desire of all New Mexicans to protect crime victims, especially those of sexual assault. We understand it has broad support among lawmakers. It will be heard in the Roundhouse as early as Monday before Senate Judiciary.

But a strong case can be made that it puts the state’s imprimatur on the kind of secrecy that gave the false University of Virginia rape allegations life.

No one wants to add to the pain endured by sexual assault victims. But our justice system and due process dictate that the rights of all those involved be protected – regardless of the allegations. SB 118 does the opposite.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.