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Open records fight could cost Conejos sheriff

Posted: Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Courier staff writer

ALAMOSA — A legal dispute between a disabilities-rights group and the Conejos County Sheriff’s Office began as a request for public information, but it quickly turned into a lawsuit about money.

The Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (CCDC) is asking a judge to hold the sheriff liable for attorneys’ fees it incurred before and after it gained access to certain department records.

Current estimates are not available, but in the course of a three-month span last year, the CCDC reported that its applicable fees and expenses jumped from $17,357 to just over $38,432.

In one instance, the group stated that its attorneys’ workload increased by just under 47 hours, for a total of $10,658. (That translates to an estimated $228.22 per hour.)

Some of the basic facts surrounding the case are not in dispute.

According to a stipulation between the two parties, coalition attorney Andrew Montoya’s group first contacted the sheriff’s office via certified mail in January 2012. At the time, the CCDC formally asked the department for information about the services it offers deaf or hearing-impaired detainees and inmates.

Attorneys for both sides agree that the sheriff’s office never responded to the CCDC’s initial request. However, they’ve also agreed that the CCDC did not follow up on the request until two months later.

Likewise, neither side disputes the fact that the sheriff’s office did not reply to a second notice.

It wasn’t until a 12th Judicial District judge held a brief May 2012 hearing on the case that the group finally received the information it was seeking. The group has since acknowledged that it’s satisfied with that particular outcome.

However, the CCDC argues that the sheriff’s office violated the state’s open records and criminal justice records laws in the months beforehand. For that reason, it says, the department should be held responsible for the CCDC’s legal expenses.

“It is truly baffling that after nearly four months, pre-suit notice and the filing of a lawsuit, the sheriff waited until the day of the hearing to even acknowledge CCDC’s request,” Montoya said in a statement last year. “Not complying with (the) law costs everyone time and money. As a non-profit organization that does not accept any public funding, CCDC will seek recovery for the time and money spent from the Conejos County Sheriff’s Office.”

Conejos County Attorney Stéfane Walter Atencio, who is representing the sheriff’s office, dismissed the group’s lawsuit as a single-minded attempt to exact tens of thousands of dollars from the department.

In his written response to a CCDC motion, Atencio said there’s nothing to suggest that anyone from the group tried — and failed — to access the department’s records.

“It should be noted that Plaintiff has not alleged that it went to the Conejos County Sheriff’s Office for the purpose of inspecting the requested records and was denied access to same,” Atencio wrote. “Rather, Plaintiff argues that the (department’s) failure to respond to the request, even though no response is required by law, constitutes a denial of access.”

Twelfth Judicial District Judge Michael Gonzales previously denied the CCDC’s request for “reasonable attorneys’ fees” on the grounds that he lacked the authority to do so. In his October 2012 ruling on group’s motion, Judge Gonzales noted that he has yet to make a decision that would resolve the case.

“Until some final determination is achieved, any request for attorney fees would be premature,” he wrote.

It could take some time before the judge makes that decision. The next status conference on the case won’t be held until Aug. 12.

Similar lawsuits came and went just as the Conejos County case was getting started.

The Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition sent out similar requests to 60 of the state’s 64 county sheriffs, and the group says that 47 of them responded in a timely manner.

Several of those who didn’t paid the price.

Mineral County settled a similar lawsuit for $1,328, while Pueblo County resolved its dispute for $1,680.

The CCDC contacted each department after it learned that sheriff’s offices in Adams and Jefferson counties denied interpretive services to deaf inmates for long periods of time. Both offices eventually reached settlements with the group, which led to changes in departmental policies and procedures at their detention facilities.

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