The New Mexico Supreme Court published an interesting opinion today on the Inspection of Public Records Act (“IPRA”). In Jones v. City of Albuquerque Police Department, the Court explained that there is no blanket exception in IPRA for “ongoing investigations.” Instead, each responsive public record must be measured against the specific requirements of the statute and produced if it does not fall within the exception, regardless of whether there is an ongoing investigation.
The case arose out of a public records request related to the shooting of James Boyd by Albuquerque Police Department officers. Mr. Boyd’s brother, Mr. Jones, filed a public records request seeking information related to the shooting. While APD produced some information, it withheld other documents, arguing that IPRA’s law enforcement exemption applied because the officers were under investigation by the FBI.
Jones filed a lawsuit to enforce IPRA. Both Jones and the Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) sought summary judgment. Ultimately, the district court granted judgment in favor of DPS, holding that the law enforcement exception applied and Jones was not entitled to the records. Eventually, the investigation concluded and DPS produced the rest of the records. The district court then denied any further relief to Jones (most notably, his attorney fees), who appealed.
In a short memorandum opinion authored by then-Judge Michael Vigil, the court of appeals affirmed. It did not, however, reach the merits of Jones’s argument. Instead, it held that he had acquiesced to the district court’s ruling by failing to fight it further (until the appeal, of course) once the court ruled against him. It also held that the matter was moot. Judge Vargas disagreed, penning a dissent that largely foreshadowed the NMSC’s opinion.
The Supreme Court disagreed with both lower courts. After rejecting the reasons the court of appeals gave for denying Jones’s appeal, it moved on to the merits of Jones’s argument: that the records DPS had withheld did not fall within IPRA’s law enforcement exception.
IPRA is designed to provide the public with the greatest possible information about the affairs of state government and the official acts of public employees. Broadly speaking, it provides that all public records are subject to inspection upon request. However, this general rule is subject to a number of exceptions. One such exception applies to “law enforcement records that reveal confidential sources, methods, information or individuals accused but not charged with a crime,” and applies even if the records relate to “inactive matters or closed investigations.” The district court had applied this exception broadly against Jones and in favor of DPS.
Both DPS and the district court had focused more on the status of the investigation. The supreme court held that this was error: the plain language of the statute focuses on the content of the records, not the nature of the investigation. This conclusion was bolstered by other portions of IPRA, which require record custodians to separate out records which may be withheld from records that may not and to produce the latter. Thus, even where there is an active investigation, the custodian may only withhold records that meet the criteria of the exception (i.e., that reveal confidential sources or methods, etc.). Rather than apply this standard, the district court had simply allowed DPS to withhold all records because there was an ongoing investigation.
Applying this view of the statute, the Court held that the district court had improperly denied summary judgment to Jones and granted it to DPS. DPS had only produced evidence that an investigation was ongoing; it had produced nothing to show that specific records met the requirements of the exception. The Court remanded to the district court for further proceedings, which presumably will be findings as to the amount of attorney fees to award.
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