Saturday, May 21, 2005


We frequently read about settlements in which claimants are paid for violations of their rights by police and other employees of the public. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are paid out to settle these cases. The wrongdoers, or alleged wrongdoers, are not liable to indemnify, reimburse, the taxpayers, except an unused law permits the government to recover from the wrongdoer if the wrong, the tort, is with "actual intentional malice". New Mexico Statutes Annotated 1978, Section 41-4-17. Have you heard of any law enforcement officer or other government employee being asked to reimburse the taxpayers after one of these large settlements?

Back to the real issue. These settlements are done in relative secrecy. What is meant by relative secrecy? It is like the United States Supreme Court, which meets in relative secrecy (because they will not allow live audio of the proceedings; and they will not allow video, live or delayed). In the case of the tort claim settlements, the fact that a settlement has been reached, before a lawsuit is filed, or during the pendency of a lawsuit, or after trial, that fact is public record. The amount is not. This works to shield wrongdoing on the part of the law enforcement officers or other alleged wrongdoers, tortfeasors. We read that a citizen claims to have been mistreated; then we read that the case is settled.

Under the statute, the government, which pays out the taxpayers' money, will say publicly that the case is settled; but they will not say how much. That takes the heat off the tortfeasor and the agency, and the heat stays off for six months. After the six months, if someone inquires and persists, the facts will come out as to how much was paid to settle the claim. By then the incident has been largely forgotten by most citizens.

Another twist, which works to shield the wrongdoing of the public employee and agency, is the rule that if an alleged wrong (tort) has more than one victim, then the six months does not expire (amount of settlement remains unknown for any and all claimants) until six months after the last claim is settled. If a police officer violates the rights of three, by physical abuse let us say, we cannot learn how much the taxpayers paid Joe Sixpack to settle, until six months after Joe Jones and Bill Smith have settled. Sometimes that takes years.

For example, in the penitentiary riot cases, in which the inmates or their families sued, and the State was a party defendant, the defendants, including the State and a company which provided the glass which was broken by inmates to gain access to the control room, got together and defended the case. They settled with the claimants one by one, some for a small amount for a death, some for much more. Because the amounts of the settlements were not disclosed, the individual claimants settled their claims without knowledge of what the taxpayers were paying the others. The law worked as intended, to help the taxpayers keep down the cost of settlement of the group of cases, but the taxpayers were not allowed to know how much, as each case settled.

The public did not learn of the amounts of the settlements of claims against the State arising out of the February 2, 1980 penitentiary riot until 1995. This writer made claim to the information for over five years before it was finally released in 1995. That was the Risk Management Division at work; trustees of the taxpayers' dollars. Question: has any newspaper ever printed the information as to how much was paid to whom by the taxpayers, as a result of alleged wrongdoing by the penitentiary administration and employees? Not to the knowledge of the writer.

In the penitentiary riot case, the claims were all settled within a few years; so why was the administration able to keep the amounts secret from the taxpayers, for 15 years? Risk Management set the disclosure date as the expiration of two years (statute of limitations in tort claim cases) from the date of the last claim presented by any claimant.

If a prisoner, or ex-prisoner even wrote a letter claiming to have been injured in the riot, and even if the statute of limitations had long run, Risk Management treated the letter as an outstanding claim. No problem there, as they had to at least look at the claim; but they then held back the settlement disclosures for all of the settlements for another few years. This continued for a total of 15 years. Who cared by then?

More later on this subject, including what Risk Management said to excuse holding up this information for 15 years.

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