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HRDC Prevails in New Mexico Public Records Suit

by Ed Lyon 

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent organization of Prison Legal News, has prevailed in a lawsuit filed in New Mexico state court after Otero County violated provisions of the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). 

On June 19, 2018, HRDC requested records from Otero County Manager Pamela Heltner, consisting of documents from January 1, 2010 to the date of the request relating to or concerning any and all claims or lawsuits resulting in payouts of $1,000 or more against the county’s sheriff or sheriff’s employees. 

Around two weeks later, Otero County Attorney Michael Eshleman responded that outside counsel was employed to defend the sheriff’s office against any such claims or legal actions, thus the requested records were the property of those attorneys and not public under the IPRA. Also, any cataloging of those records by the county would be creating new records, which is not a provision of the IPRA.

A second records request by HRDC, identical to the first, was submitted to the public records officer of the Otero County Detention Center on August 3, 2018. A nearly identical response was returned by Eshleman four days later. 

On August 31, 2018, HRDC filed suit in state court against Otero’s Board of County Commissioners and other county officials for violating the IPRA. After only 10 months, the parties reached a settlement whereby HRDC would receive the requested records as well as $18,000 from Otero County. See: Human Rights Defense Center v. Board of County Commissioners for the County of Otero, 12th Judicial District Court of Otero County (NM), Case No. D-1215-CV-2018-00864.

“The public has a right to know how taxpayer money is being spent to resolve lawsuits against law enforcement agencies, and government officials cannot conceal such payments by farming out litigation defense to private counsel,” stated PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann.