Wednesday, September 24, 2008
DA's Dog Bite Case Sealed
By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
State judges seal hundreds of cases each year. The sealing orders don't just prevent the public from looking at what's inside the files. They wipe out all references to the cases in courthouse records available to the public. It's as if the cases never existed. Call it secret justice.
Few rules exist regarding when judges can seal cases. There is no law requiring public notice. Some cases are sealed for obvious reasons such as those involving competency and adoption. For other cases, some involving prominent New Mexicans, the reasons are less clear. The state Administrative Office of the Courts agreed to give the Journal limited information, including parties' names and types of actions, on more than 1,000 cases sealed since Jan. 1, 2003. This is the first of a series of columns on those cases.
Elaine Hazelrigg lives in the same northeast Albuquerque neighborhood as District Attorney Kari Brandenburg and has been by her home many times.
On occasion, Hazelrigg says, she would stop and pet Brandenburg's "cute and lovable" dog.
She did just that on a September day two years ago, kneeling to pet the dog as it poked its head through a fence near or on Brandenburg's property line.
"I was saying, 'If I could have a dog, it would be just like you.' That's when she hauled off and bit me in the face. It was the scariest thing in my life," said Hazelrigg, 62.
"You just don't know how much your face can bleed until you're bit like that."
In addition to bite wounds, she suffered two chipped teeth, she said.
An officer with the city's Environmental Health Department found that the dog wasn't current on its rabies vaccination and wasn't licensed.
Hazelrigg, who lives on a street of high-end homes, said she decided to sue Brandenburg after the DA denied fault for her injuries and refused to pay her medical and dental expenses.
"There was no remorse whatsoever. Zero," she said. "I wasn't in it for the money."
The lawsuit was filed in 2007. Hazelrigg said she sued for $19,000 in damages. She said a settlement was reached but can't disclose its terms.
A state District Court judge, at the request of Brandenburg, has since sealed the case from public inspection.
Search by Brandenburg's name on the New Mexico Courts Web site and you will not find the case. Even if you had the case number, it would do you no good. Type in a number for any sealed case and you get this response, "No results found."
There is no statewide rule for judges governing when they can seal cases. They can choose to seal a particular document in a case or an entire file.
Only three of the state's 13 judicial districts have rules. The District Court in Albuquerque is one of the three. Its rule says a file may be sealed "in extraordinary cases" and upon a "showing of good cause."
So why was the dog-bite suit sealed?
Was it because Brandenburg, who is seeking re-election this fall, wanted to avoid possible public backlash for having a dog without a current rabies shot and license or for refusing to take responsibility for the injuries suffered by Hazelrigg?
Attorney James Johansen, who represented Brandenburg in the suit, said no. He said the case was sealed because of concerns by the DA that file documents revealed the location of her home.
"There has to be a balance here in protecting public officials and letting the public know what officials are doing in their private lives," Johansen said.
But Brandenburg's home address is easily and widely available from public sources.
And Don Kochersberger, a lawyer for Hazelrigg, said one document in the case file a summons issued to Brandenburg had previously been sealed because it disclosed the DA's home address.
Asked whether there was any other information in the case file that would have disclosed the location of the DA's home, Kochersberger said, "I doubt it. I don't know what it would have been."
Brandenburg declined to talk about the case because of its sealing or allow inspection of her attorney's copies of documents filed in the suit.
"My file was sealed because of my position and for security reasons," she said. "I think I would be jeopardizing my safety and my children's safety if we went into any more than that."
The DA was cited by the city for not having her dog licensed, but the citation was dismissed after she obtained one.
Brandenburg now has a sign in her yard warning passers-by that her dog may bite.
You can reach Thom Cole in Santa Fe at 992-6280 or at email@example.com