Debra Hinkel, who sued and settled with Albany County after her unarmed son was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy, wants the settlement documents from her lawsuit to be made public, according to her attorney.
Albany County has sought to block public access to the terms of the settlement — including the cost to taxpayers — since its completion in May 2022.
Hinkel’s son Robbie Ramirez was killed in 2018 by then-Albany County sheriff’s deputy Derek Colling. Hinkel sued the county, in part, to scrutinize why Albany County hired Colling. While serving with the Las Vegas Police Department, Colling used lethal force twice — both incidents were ruled justified — and was then fired for beating and arresting a bystander who was videoing officers from his own property.
Albany County denied WyoFile’s initial request for the settlement records on Oct. 2, 2022, citing a confidentiality agreement between the parties, including Hinkel. WyoFile filed a follow-up request a year later on Aug. 22, referencing a recent Wyoming Supreme Court ruling that bolstered public records law.
In Gates v. Memorial Hospital, the court found that confidentiality agreements do not limit public access to settlement agreements with government entities. But WyoFile’s request in Albany County is putting that opinion to the test.
Albany County has made clear in court filings that it does not intend to release documents detailing its settlement, arguing that “public disclosure of the information in the court record would do substantial injury to governmental operations serving the public.”
Hinkel’s lawyers disagree.
“This action on the part of the County is deeply concerning,” wrote Hinkel’s attorneys, Noah Drew and Alicia Evans with the Spence Law Firm, in a letter to Albany County Attorney Kurt Britzius.
“There is no valid basis to refuse the agreement’s disclosure under Wyoming law, nor do any special circumstances exist to prevent the release,” Drew and Evans wrote.
“Releasing the settlement agreement aligns with the precise goal of the public records act to promote transparency and disclosure of the government’s activities; not to hide in secrecy,” Hinkel’s attorneys wrote. “The public is owed this kind of transparency.”
The benefit to the public is threefold, according to First Amendment attorney Bruce Moats.
“Number one is, what’s being paid on our behalf,” Moats said. “I don’t care if it’s insurance. It’s all public funds that’s paid on our behalf.”
Beyond $62,771 paid for its annual policy and a $5,000 deductible, Albany County’s legal costs and settlement fees in the Hinkel lawsuit were covered by the Local Government Liability Pool.
Moats added that the amount paid can give some indication of the performance of the government, especially if there are repeat lawsuits for similar incidents.
And third, “sometimes in a settlement agreement, there’ll be other things other than money where the government agrees to do certain things,” Moats said. Those actions might include policy changes, writing guidance or requiring more training.
“Public information can be helpful in ways that we can’t perceive now,” Moats said.
Attorneys for Colling and former Sheriff Dave O’Malley — also named in the lawsuit — were not available for comment by press time.