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Bill seeks to shield victims and witnesses in rape cases and similar crimes

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s law-enforcement agencies would be empowered to keep secret the names of some witnesses to and victims of certain crimes – rape and stalking, among them – under a proposal headed to the Senate floor.

The proposal triggered intense opposition from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and others – who argued that it would limit the public’s ability to monitor the work of police.

Senate Bill 149, in any case, won the unanimous backing of the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and now heads to the Senate floor.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat who sponsored the proposal, said it’s aimed at protecting the confidentiality of men and women who have endured rape or a similar crime. The state records law, he said, already has an exemption for people accused of but not charged with a crime.

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“We should afford the same level of dignity and respect to the victims of sexual assault that we do the alleged perpetrator,” he said.

But the names of perpetrators are almost never withheld from the public, said Gregory P. Williams, president of the Foundation for Open Government board. In fact, they are routinely included in police reports and charging documents, alongside the names of everyone else involved.

“To state that we somehow treat accusers worse than perpetrators, I think, is really misleading,” Williams said in an interview.

It’s important to have the names of everyone involved, opponents said, so that reporters or other members of the public can verify the accuracy of official statements provided by the police.

The Journal – like other media outlets generally – doesn’t identify the victims of rape or domestic violence while reporting on criminal cases, even though the names are in public documents.

Wednesday’s hearing was a tense one. At one point, Candelaria interrupted an opponent and accused her of misrepresenting his willingness to compromise.

The proposal was backed by the University of New Mexico, Equality New Mexico and a coalition of groups that address sexual assault.

Nasha Y. Torrez, dean of students at the University of New Mexico, said the ability to identify rape victims through public records could open them up to retaliation. Journalists aren’t the only ones who use the state public records act, she said, and an anonymous poster on social media could try to shame a rape victim.

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“This isn’t a minor thing,” she said.

Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the Foundation for Open Government, said the bill allows too much secrecy.

“Police and law-enforcement agencies simply often choose not to talk to the public,” he told the committee. “The only way to report on public safety is access to these kind of documents.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee – with Candelaria’s support – scaled back the bill.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, won approval for an amendment, for example, that aims to make clear that just the names would be redacted, not the entire law-enforcement record.

Another amendment made it clear that police officers who are witnesses aren’t covered by the exemption. Their names would be included.

The amended version of the bill allows the government to withhold the names of victims and non-law-enforcement witnesses in cases of:

• Aggravated assault and assault with intent to commit a violent felony, when the allegation centers on rape.

• Assault against a household member with intent to commit a violent felony.

• Stalking, aggravated stalking, rape and criminal sexual contact.

The bill now heads to the Senate floor. If approved there, it would also need approval of the House and Gov. Susana Martinez to become law.

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