January 29, 2019

House gets bill to withhold names of victims

Joe Gratz


A bill to conceal the names of victims of certain violent crimes from public-records disclosure is headed to the New Mexico House of Representatives for consideration.

Senate Bill 118 would create an exception regarding law enforcement records before charges are filed against any suspect. It would redact the names of victims and non-law enforcement witnesses from public records of crimes involving assault, stalking, rape and criminal sexual contact.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 14-0 to support the bill, discussing it only briefly.

The Senate approved the bill 41-0 last week.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill, said current law allows law enforcement agencies to redact the names of suspects who have not been formally charged with a crime. But, he said, names victims and witnesses are often included in documents.

“This legislation seeks to provide some dignity to victims of rape and physical assault that the law affords to their alleged assailants,” Candelaria said.

Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, said the bill would protect victims of sexual assaults and violent felonies who otherwise might be publicly identified and possibly “stalked, being exposed in some way, harassed.”

“I think this is an important protection that we need to expand to victims and non-law enforcement witnesses,” said Hochman-Vigil, who is carrying the bill on the House side.

But Melanie Majors, director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the bill, though full of good intentions, could stymie news media efforts to report on violent crimes as well as public efforts to learn more about law enforcement procedures.

“We consider this an anti-transparency bill,” she said. “It would limit access to important public information. The names of victims and witnesses are not incidental to public records about violent crime. They are essential.”

Rory McClannahan, executive director of the New Mexico Press Association, said it’s important to keep an eye on “anything lawmakers start to do in terms of looking at changing the Public Records Act. We want to make sure they are doing it in the best interests of the public.”

In this case, he said, he can understand the need to “provide protection from further victimization or persecution.”

Two people — Damon Martinez, chief policy adviser for the Albuquerque Police Department, and Julianna Koob, a lobbyist and for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs– spoke in support of the bill. No one at the hearing opposed it.

Claire Harwell, legal director for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, said by phone Monday, “We believe privacy is of the utmost importance for folks after these kinds of offenses that have betrayal as such a central component of the experience.”