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The city of Rio Rancho must pay more than $43,000 in fees and costs after a state district judge found the city violated New Mexico law in keeping police records confidential in the fatal shooting of a 2-year-old last year.
District Judge James Noel of Sandoval County awarded a total of $43,729 to the Rodey Law Firm, which represented the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper in a lawsuit filed earlier this year challenging the city’s refusal to turn over the requested police records.
“It is unfortunate when public officials don’t fulfill their obligation under the law concerning the release of records,” Melanie J. Majors, NMFOG director, said. “Not only did these public officials unnecessarily delay the disclosure of a public record,” Majors added, “they also imposed a substantial financial burden on the City of Rio Rancho. Rio Rancho is now legally obligated to pay the attorney’s fees.”
Initial incident reports and 911 calls are released routinely as public records in cases that involve the public and law enforcement officers, Majors said, but Rio Rancho officials argued for months that such records were protected from disclosure by the state Children’s Code.
Noel concluded the records, which included a police incident report and 911 recordings, were public under the state Inspection of Public Records Act. He dismissed claims that the Children’s Code prevented such disclosure.
The Dec. 8 death of Lincoln Harmon at his family’s Rio Rancho home was shrouded in mystery for months after Rio Rancho police refused to release initial police reports in what was ultimately determined to be an accidental death. The boy, whose father is a Santa Fe police officer, had been shot by his brother, who had been handling his father’s off-duty gun.
The refusal to release the records led the state Attorney General’s Office last March to conclude that Rio Rancho was violating IPRA, but Rio Rancho officials argued the AG’s office was wrong and continued to deny media requests for the records.
After FOG and the Santa Fe New Mexican filed suit seeking a judicial ruling in the case, Rio Rancho said it would await the outcome of the lawsuit.
“The City believes it was legislative intent of the Children’s Code to protect children from ongoing trauma and mental anguish, and not for IPRA to expose victims’ information as content for the media, guerrilla journalism, and the dark web,” a spokeswoman for the city said in April.
Prevailing parties in an IPRA lawsuit are entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees and costs under the law. The city of Rio Rancho didn’t oppose the amount, which was submitted by attorney Charles “Kip” Purcell.
Purcell, attorney and a member of the NMFOG Board of Directors, said in a statement that Noel’s decision is important “because it makes clear that the confidentiality required by the Children’s Code applies only to the Children, Youth & Families Department’s file. Documents generated by law enforcement agencies are subject to public inspection in the files of those agencies, even if CYFD has obtained copies of them.”
Santa Fe New Mexican editor Phill Casaus said last week, “We and FOG, and a lot of other folks really disagreed with the city of Rio Rancho’s position and we felt it was important to bring before a court. I’m really gratified by the judge’s decision. It’s unfortunate they took that position.”
Peter Wells, Rio Rancho deputy city manager, told the Journal that city officials and its insurance provider, the New Mexico Municipal League’s self insurer’s fund, haven’t yet finalized the cost allocation.
“Any amount the city would pay related to litigation costs would come from already budgeted general purpose funds,” he said in an email.
The amount of legal fees charged to defend the case wasn’t disclosed. The law firm representing the city in the case, Montgomery & Andrews, billed the city’s insurance provider, Wells said.
No criminal charges resulted after the fatal shooting, which is still under review by the state Attorney General’s Office. That office was referred the case by the district attorney’s office in Sandoval County. In April, the AG’s office released 53 pages of records related to the Rio Rancho police investigation of the shooting.
The records showed that Lincoln and his older brother were in the kitchen by themselves the morning of the shooting, when the 4-year-old pushed a kitchen chair to a countertop to get chewing gun inside a cabinet and found the loaded gun on the top shelf. The older boy either was pulling the gun from its holster or pointing it up and unintentionally fired the gun, the records showed. The bullet hit his younger brother beneath his lip, exiting in the back of his head.
Their mother was in another room at the time tending to a newborn baby, the records showed, and their father was just waking up.
A GoFundMe page was set up for the family shortly after the shooting.
Back in April, a city spokeswoman said Rio Rancho wanted the Legislature in its upcoming session to enact a “statutory fix to clarify the contradictions and ambiguities that currently exist in IPRA, the Children’s Code, and other sections of law including the victims’ rights provisions in the NM Constitution.”
Wells told the Journal that “modernizing IPRA, and concerns related to individual citizen privacy, has been an identified issue for the Rio Rancho Governing Body previously.”
He said the members of the governing body will consider their priority legislation list/resolution for the 2023 legislative session on Dec. 15.