Rio Rancho loses lawsuit over public records regarding boy’s death

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RIO RANCHO, N.M. — A judge has ruled the city of Rio Rancho was wrong to refuse to fulfill public information requests regarding the death of a two-year-old boy.

Last year, two-year-old Lincoln Harmon was accidentally shot and killed by his older brother in their Rio Rancho home. After he died, the city refused all Inspection of Public Records Act requests made by news agencies asking for police reports and 911 calls.

So the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and the Santa Fe New Mexican sued the city.

Leaders at NMFOG say they never doubted what the outcome of this lawsuit would be and now they hope cities like Rio Rancho will be more transparent.

“For the city of Rio Rancho to hold back those records citing regulations or rules totally inappropriate,” NMFOG Executive Director Melanie Majors said.

While she’s happy the courts sided with her organization and the New Mexican, she wishes they never had to sue in the first place.

“This was a lawsuit that was totally unnecessary if the city of Rio Rancho had followed the law in the beginning the taxpayers and the citizens of Rio Rancho would not be facing a 40,000 dollar legal bill,” Majors said.

“We believe that law enforcement records have traditionally been available under the inspection of public records act and we sued to vindicate what we thought were our rights under IPRA,” Attorney Kip Purcell added.

Rio Rancho argues those police reports were not public information because they gave details about the death of a child – Deputy City Manager Peter Wells said in an email that the city has no comment on the recent ruling.

Back in March, the city issued a statement:

“There are varying interpretations of IPRA, the New Mexico Children’s Code, and other sections of law including the victims’ rights provisions in the New Mexico Constitution. As such, and at this juncture, a court must weigh in and provide a definitive ruling regarding what information can and should be released.”

Now that a judge has made that ruling, open government advocates are optimistic future IPRA requests will be fulfilled when requested.

“What I hope is that other public bodies take note of this result and don’t repeat the mistakes Rio Rancho made in the case in withholding classically public documents based on confidentiality provisions of the children’s code those provisions just don’t apply to law enforcement records,” Purcell said.

The city of Rio Rancho will have to pay the law firm representing the foundation and the Santa Fe New Mexican more than $43,000 in legal fees now that the appeal window has closed on this case. It’s unclear how much Rio Rancho paid its lawyers in litigation fees.