Citizen complaints filed against police officers are public records and must be released upon demand.
That’s the upshot of a New Mexico Supreme Court order issued Monday, which ends a five-year battle by the New Mexico Department of Public Safety to withhold records from Charles Cox, a former State Police captain.
Cox’s attorney Cindi Pearlman applauded the outcome.
“The Supreme Court gave the Department of Public Safety every opportunity to show why citizen complaints about the on-duty conduct of officers should not be disclosed to the public,” Pearlman said.
“It was unable to do so, because there simply is no good reason to conceal observations about how public servants carry out their duties to the public from the folks who pay their salaries.”
The Supreme Court heard oral argument from both sides in April, and it also accepted friend-of-the-court briefs from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.
On Monday the Court declined to issue its own opinion.
Instead, the final word rests with the Court of Appeals, which ruled in 2010 that DPS must release the requested records.
“The Court of Appeals opinion is now good law, and we can refer to it when people request similar documents in the future,” FOG Executive Director Sarah Welsh said.
The Court of Appeals opinion was hailed by FOG when it arrived, as a victory for public access. The opinion found that citizen complaints against police officers do not fall under an exemption for “matters of opinion in personnel files,” in part because they arise from the officer’s role as a public servant, not his or her employment relationship with a public agency.
“We are pleased that the New Mexico Supreme Court allowed the decision of the Court of Appeals to stand,” FOG Attorney Susan Boe said. “We always believed the ruling by the lower court was correct and was a victory for open government, by informing the public of actions by its public officials which draw complaints from the people they are pledged to serve.”
Pearlman echoed that sentiment.
“The decision of the Court of Appeals was well-reasoned and in line with cases all over the country upholding government transparency,” Pearlman said.
Welsh said Monday’s decision reaffirms the public’s right to know and to hold public officials accountable.
“It goes back to ‘trust but verify,’” Welsh said. “We may choose to trust what public officials tell us, but as citizens we always have the right to dig in, ask questions and see for ourselves. This decision will stand behind any person who wants to do that.”