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AG: Rio Rancho broke the law on recordings

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

RIO RANCHO — The city of Rio Rancho’s refusal to release police records regarding the apparent shooting death of a Santa Fe police officer’s 2-year-old son turned into a blistering attack this week on the office of the state attorney general and the media.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas.

Told by Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office on Monday that the city of Rio Rancho violated state public records law by denying a request from KOAT-TV for law enforcement records of the fatal shooting of the Dec. 8, Rio Rancho City Attorney Gregory Lauer returned a written response, which Balderas told the Journal on Wednesday was insulting and “highly inappropriate.”

In it, Lauer suggested that the AG’s office itself violated a different state law by siding with KOAT-TV. The city maintained that the records sought were confidential under the state’s Children’s Code.

Lauer also accused the AG’s office of providing “more than a series of contrived and illogical machinations” and said that “the AG’s narrow and toned down arguments demonstrate and confirm how one must take an illogical and myopic view. of the law to arrive at the same set of conclusions.

Lauer said that despite the GA’s conclusion, the city would continue to withhold police records related to the death of 2-year-old Lincoln Harmon and “protect the rights of children and families.”

But on Wednesday, there was a reversal.

A spokeswoman for the city of Rio Rancho told the Journal that the city plans to release some records on the case, but needs time to redact some protected information.

Rio Rancho declined multiple media requests, including the Journal, for law enforcement records on the case.

But on Wednesday, without explaining the reason for the cancellation, the city released a statement saying it was “now processing media inquiries.”

Lauer did not respond to a Journal request for an interview.

Guarantee of public rights

The New Mexico Public Records Inspection Act guarantees the public the right to inspect and copy all public records, except as provided by law. The AG’s office is responsible for enforcing the State Public Records Act.

Asked about Lauer’s written response on Monday, Balderas told the Journal, “I was actually shocked given that we are authorized by law to do this very important enforcement work. We took our time to make sure we were right about the law and their response was highly inappropriate and outside the norm of many governments we partner with to provide transparency.

Balderas added: “We were fully prepared to take legal action quickly (the IPRA issue in court). I was even more surprised when they changed course. They brandished insults; they were not ready to defend their position.

On Wednesday, Annemarie Garcia, a spokeswoman for Rio Rancho, said the city wants the legislature to clarify ambiguities in the Children’s Code.

“The city believes it was the legislative intent of the Children’s Code to protect children from continued trauma and mental anguish, and not for the IPRA to expose victims’ information as content for media, guerrilla journalism and the dark web,” according to a statement. sent to the media.

Balderas said he was “disappointed that they (Rio Rancho officials) claim to take the position of protecting children and yet I strongly believe that transparency laws also protect children, especially in light of these tragic circumstances The community wants and deserves answers about what tragically happened to the young child.

Need for transparency

Since the boy’s death, no records have been provided by the Rio Rancho Police Department that could explain how he was shot and by whom.

The agency filed a search warrant affidavit Dec. 9 seeking court approval to search the Enchanted Hills home of her parents Jonathan and Courtney Harmon. This document was released by the court and provided information.

Officers who arrived at the scene discovered a spent cartridge case and projectile near the boy, who died from a gunshot wound. A gun holster was on the kitchen counter and the boy’s mother told police the gun was placed in a cabinet nearby, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit said the boy’s mother called 911 saying her 2-year-old son had fallen out of a chair in their Rio Rancho home and “there was blood everywhere.” The couple have at least one other young child.

The 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office said it sent the police investigation to the AG’s office on Feb. 18 to avoid a conflict because Jonathan Harmon previously worked with the Bernalillo Police Department. This agency sends its cases for prosecution to the prosecutor’s office.

Balderas said his agency is determining if such a conflict exists and will provide technical assistance regardless.

“Because this case is so important to the community of Rio Rancho, we are helping to assemble an independent investigation team that can provide assistance to the Rio Rancho police and the district attorney’s office.”

Balderas said that in “highly sensitive and tragic child abuse cases, investigative agencies need to produce a status update in a timely manner and be transparent in a way that all stakeholders can feel that at least the victim receives adequate due process under the law”.

He said enough time has passed that “the general public should at least be aware of the findings of the Rio Rancho Police Department and/or whether or not there are any necessary prosecution experts.”

“Whether this was an accident with no criminal culpability there should be a general update or if this is a case of further investigation and prosecution the general public should be aware of the direction it’s headed and it just didn’t happen.”

“There has to be an adequate level of transparency,” Balderas added.

CYFD investigation closed

Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families has concluded its investigation into the incident and closed its investigation, CYFD Deputy Cabinet Secretary Beth Gillia said in an email. mail. She declined to give further details.

KOAT, along with the Albuquerque Journal, the Santa Fe New Mexican and other news outlets, have requested police incident reports and 911 recordings related to the circumstances of the boy’s death. Her father is employed with the Santa Fe Police Department.

The Journal’s sister newspaper, the Rio Rancho Observer, had also filed a complaint with the AG’s office based on Rio Rancho’s earlier refusal to provide police records relating to other cases involving alleged child abuse. children and crimes committed by minors.

In these cases, the city of Rio Rancho denied the request, again stating that the information was protected under the state’s Children’s Code.

In issuing opinions on these two complaints on Monday, the AG’s office found no basis for Rio Rancho’s legal basis for withholding the records.

And Assistant AG John Kreienkamp’s opinion on the KOAT-TV complaint urged the city to re-evaluate its approach to child records requests as well as public records requests more generally.

“The City’s policy concerns about the disclosure of certain documents do not validly supersede a specific exemption in the statute…and no provision of the Children’s Code creates a general exception to disclosure for all documents mentioning or being pertaining to a child under any circumstances,” Kreienkamp wrote in a seven-page letter.

In his response, City Attorney Lauer said, “The letter from the Attorney General’s office provides more than a series of contrived and illogical machinations which the city rejects because they are irrelevant to what the New Mexico law actually declares and prescribes about it.”

He added: “It is possible in fact in this case that the Attorney General’s office violated the New Mexico Constitution’s anti-donation prohibition by sending what is essentially a collection request or letter on behalf of ‘an individual or private sector entity who has no right to such public resources, legal services or expenditures’.

“In any event,” Lauer wrote, “for all machinations, the contents of the letter do not change the plain language of the Children’s Code, which applies as an exception to the IPRA.”

Lauer, who was hired by Rio Rancho in late 2016, was previously a private attorney in Albuquerque and worked for the state government.

AG, the city clashed before

The clash between the AG’s office and the Rio Rancho city prosecutor is not the first.

In 2017, the attorney general’s office informed the city of Rio Rancho that its practice of charging citizens $30 for copies of 911 call recordings may violate state public records law, because it was “excessive”.

The AG’s office, responding to a complaint from a citizen, also determined that the city violated the IPRA because it did not allow the citizen access to the recordings before charging for downloading copies.

The city disagreed — and Lauer said at the time that the city could start charging more for longer requests.

In the end, the city provided the four recordings to the citizen and offered to refund her payment.