The New Mexico Supreme Court recently upheld public access to formal citizen complaints filed against police officers.
In late June, the Court denied a request for review of a lower court ruling. That decision left in place a 2010 appellate court decision which held that formal citizen complaints against police officers were public records and could be released under New Mexico's Inspection of Public Records Act (“IPRA”). Cox v. New Mexico Dept. of Public Safety, 148 N.M. 934, 242 P.3d 501 (N.M. App. 2010). The New Mexico Department of Public Safety sought to withhold the records, claiming that the citizen complaints fell under an IPRA exemption for "matters of opinion in personnel files" because the records relate to an officer’s job performance. However, the New Mexico Court of Appeals found the exemption inapplicable, finding that citizen complaints necessarily arise from an officer's role as a public servant, not the employment relationship with a public agency. The appellate court noted that internal investigation reports and employer opinions generated as a result of citizen complaints remain exempt under as “matters of opinion in personnel files.” However, the complaints themselves cannot be withheld. 242 P.3d at 507-08. The court commented that though the Department of Public Safety “is the keeper of the information contained in the citizen complaints, the information continues to belong to the citizen who made the complaint.” Id. at 507. Even if the allegations or complaints are untrue, it is not a basis for withholding information from the public. Id.
A similar debate is ongoing in Seattle, as noted in our earlier blog post. The Seattle City Attorney’s office recently appealed an arbitration decision that ordered the Seattle Police Department to stop releasing the names of officers found to have engaged in misconduct. Washington’s Public Records Act provides a strongly worded mandate for broad disclosure of public records. Exemptions are narrowly construed. See Yakima v. Yakima Herald Republic, 170 Wn.2d 755, 791, 246 P.3d 768 (2011). The City of Seattle argued that the arbitrator’s decision violates the PRA, as there is no applicable exemption that would allow withholding the names. The Seattle Police Guild argued that the “law-enforcement” exemption applies which prevents law enforcement or investigative records from public inspection and copying. See RCW 4.56.240. The case is currently pending in King County Superior Court.
“Name release” disputes arise regularly in many contexts, particularly education. In a 2008 Washington case, Bellevue John Does 1-11 v. Bellevue School District 405, 164 Wn.2d 199, 189 P.3d 139 (2008), the Washington Supreme Court held that the identities of public school teachers accused of sexual misconduct may be disclosed to the public when the misconduct is substantiated or the teachers’ conduct resulted in some form of discipline, even if only a reprimand. 164 Wn.2d. at 205. In contrast, the names of teachers who are the subject of unsubstantiated allegations are exempt from disclosure under the PRA. Id. at 212.