State Used Records as 'Public Relations Sword,' Judge Rules

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First Judicial District Court Judge Bryan Biedscheid ordered the New Mexico Department of Public Safety (DPS) to pay $28,000 in damages as well as attorney’s fees after finding the Department violated the Inspection of Public Records Act when employees refused to release records relating to a Farmington police shooting.

The ruling came after Felix Anchondo requested records that detailed the Department’s investigation after a Farmington police officer shot Anchondo’s brother in December 2017.

In his findings of fact, Biedscheid wrote that Department officials had issued multiple press releases and dash cam video to media outlets, and then subsequently found officials withheld those same records from Anchondo, citing the law enforcement exemption in the Act.

“No competent, credible evidence was presented to the Court as to why DPS could not reasonably produce the contents of its investigative file, even under a protective or confidentiality order of the Court, between the close of the investigation and any prosecutorial decision by the District Attorney,” Biedscheid wrote.

Biedscheid found that it took nearly a year, from August 2018 to May 2019 after the investigation was completed, for the Department to produce the requested records and the delay was damaging to Anchondo because it made it impossible for him to evaluate any legal claims that might have been brought following the shooting.

“DPS’ selective and editorial release of information to the media that was favorable to Officer Warman and the Farmington Police Department exacerbated the above-described harms by not only depriving the Anchondo family of information but selectively and purposefully skewing the released narrative against the interests of the family,” Biedscheid wrote.

In addition, the judge concluded that law enforcement agencies could not legally withhold records that had already been revealed or that were not confidential. 

“While it is true that the law enforcement exception shield certain information from public request,” Biedscheid wrote, “IPRA is not intended to be a public relations sword that allows DPS to offer editorial and selective information to shape public opinion while denying the public access to the underlying information.”

In the ruling, Biedscheid wrote the court did not have the authority to enter punitive damages against the Department as a state agency, but wrote that Anchondo’s personal distress might be worthy of additional award but damages were capped in accordance with state law.

The Department must pay Anchondo’s legal fees and the maximum penalty of $100 per day from the time that the investigation concluded and the time that all records were released, totaling $28,000.

The Farmington Daily Times reported Department officials said they were implementing new policies to review and release all non-confidential information.

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