Monday, April 23, 2012

Appeals court allows Christian County cops to keep identifying information on police reports secret

The Kentucky Court of Appeals has ruled that the City of Hopkinsville can "withhold home addresses, telephone numbers and driver’s license numbers of people listed in arrest reports and criminal complaints," including people charged with crimes, crime victims, and witnesses in criminal cases, the Kentucky New Era reports. Mayor Dan Kemp told the newspaper he did not interpret the decision to apply to closed cases, but writer Jennifer P. Brown noted, "The ruling makes no distinction between police cases that are open or closed."

The case began when the New Era asked city police for records "related to allegations of stalking, harassment and terroristic threatening," Brown reports. The city refused to give the paper "reports in open cases and all reports involving juveniles. (Juvenile court proceedings are closed and the names of juvenile defendants are not released. However, state law does not require police to withhold the names of juvenile who witness or are victims of crimes.) Of the records released in the city’s initial response, the city redacted a wide range of identifying factors, including a person’s race, gender, date of birth, ethnicity, address and telephone number."

The newspaper appealed to Attorney General Jack Conway, who ruled in its favor. The city appealed to Christian Circuit Court, and after losing initially, got a ruling that it could "routinely redact addresses, telephone numbers, driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers," Brown writes. "The newspaper did not dispute the practice of withholding Social Security numbers." Soon afterward, police adopted a policy of "redacting addresses and telephone numbers on the reports it makes available every day to media outlets." The Christian County sheriff has no such policy.

Privacy trumps public interest: A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals upheld the policy, citing the exemption in the Kentucky Open Records Act for "records containing information of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" and the court's 1994 decision that allowed redaction of employees' names, addresses, phone numbers, birthdate and Social Security number from state workers' compensation injury reports.

That court "reasoned that disclosure of such information would infringe upon the employees’ right to privacy in the home," Judge Laurence VanMeter wrote. "Such a right, which this court described as 'the right to be left alone,' is one of 'our most time-honored rights' and 'has long been steadfastly recognized by our laws and customs.'"

The law requires courts to balance the privacy right with the public's interest in disclosure, and the New Era argued that lack of the contact information would make it more difficult to report on the activities of the police department. But the court said the information itself would reveal "nothing about the Hopkinsville Police Department’s execution of its statutory functions."

The newspaper's attorney, Jon Fleischaker of Louisville, said the court failed to understand the role of journalists to investigate citizen reports that the police did not handle their cases properly. “It is often the case that we are investigating inaction as opposed to action,” he said. “The way you investigate inaction is to go to people who wanted action and didn’t get it.”

The paper was investigating police handling of such cases after a 2009 apartment fire started by a Molotov cocktail. "A man suspected of throwing the Molotov cocktail also doused a resident with gasoline, according to police. Neighbors told the New Era the suspect had threatened the couple living in the apartment, and according to court records, he had previously threatened a woman living in the apartment. He was later charged with arson."

Impact is limited, but implications may be great: Because the court said on its opinion that it was "not to be published," the decision has no precedental authority outside Christian County, but Fleischaker said it has statewide implications because another part of it defies everything he knows about the state Open Records Act, which he helped write and rewrite.

"On the question of redacting information from police reports, the appeals court shifted the burden from a public agency to those making open records requests," Brown reports. "This means that a public agency could withhold a particular piece of information in each record it releases, and it would not have to justify the redaction unless challenged."

UPDATE, June 10: The New Era is asking the state Supreme Court for discretionary review of the case. New Era Publisher Taylor Hayes said he and Fleischaker are discussing whether to appeal. Editor Eli Pace said, “Quite simply, this ruling prevents not just the media but anyone from holding law enforcement officials accountable for how they handle witnesses and victims. I’ve never seen a public agency anywhere else even try to withhold information as basic as what we were seeking. The court’s ruling is very disheartening.” (Read more)

No comments:

Post a Comment