The Vermont Legislature has some work to do…

As this decision makes clear, Vermont FOI law provides no right of access to law enforcement investigative records — even after the case is closed! That’s a wee problem, folks…

The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday granted a partial victory to the Rutland Herald in the newspaper’s effort to get access to records concerning allegations that Rutland city employees viewed pornography at work.

The justices issued the second decision in as many weeks in the Herald’s access-to-records fights. It said the paper can get access to disciplinary records stemming from the investigation of city public works employees, but the names of the workers will be blacked out.

But it barred similar access to a probe of city police department employees. The court ruled those records were exempt from disclosure because they were linked to the detection and investigation of crimes.

At the same time, the court suggested the Legislature re-examine the exemptions from disclosure under the Vermont public records law to see whether some criteria could be set up to make police investigative records public.

Robert Hemley, a Burlington-based lawyer who frequently works on First Amendment cases and represented the Herald, said the court re-emphasized that under Vermont law as currently written, there is no public access to records relating to police investigations of specific crimes — even when the case is over.

In South Carolina, They Want to Give ‘Discretion’ to Law Enforcement…

Yeah, I wonder how this would work out?

Raising the hackles of watchdogs throughout the state, Rep. Chris Murphy of Summerville has proposed amendments to the state’s Freedom of Information Act statute “to protect the integrity of the criminal trial process” and to bring it in line with federal and neighboring state laws.

The amendment, concerned primarily with law enforcement, was introduced Feb. 7 and currently sits in the House judiciary committee. The original law was passed in 1976.

Here is what the amendment does:

  • Adds “Information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action or criminal prosecution” to the list of items that may be exempt.
  • Removes the word “relationships” and rewrites a section as: “Correspondence or work products of prosecutors or other legal counsel for a public body and any other material that would violate attorney-client privileges or undermine the open communication among victims, law enforcement, and prosecutors.”

This Hassle-the-Photographer Crapola Is Getting Old…

Not really FOI, but hey, this is getting downright ridiculous:

A Las Vegas police officer detained a man for refusing to walk away after taking a photo of a movie set that was completely visible to the public.

The man video recorded his interaction, which doesn’t show the officer’s face or name, but allows us to clearly hear him trying to justify giving the photographeran unlawful order.

The photographer whose username is 1willwanders on Youtube, held his ground, asking the officer to cite him the law that would allow him to single out a person for taking photos on a public street, ordering him to walk away while countless other people are allowed to remain because they are not taking photos.

The officer was unable to do so. The photographer was allowed to walk away after more than two minutes of debating with the cop.

Photo of a police officer, Boston, USA

Image via Wikipedia

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The Kind of Reporting FOI Makes Possible….

Kudos to Milwaukee (Wis.) Journal Sentinel investigative reporter Gina Barton, whose excellent October 2011 three-part series “Both Sides of the Law” found that at least 93 Milwaukee police officers had been disciplined for violating laws and ordinances, but didn’t lose their jobs.

Barton said it took nearly two years of records requests, a court case, and $7,500 in fees to complete the story. Her findings made an impact in the local community — and with state legislators.

In such tough times for newsrooms, such work is particularly noteworthy. The dedication of time and resources here is impressive, and the results? Well, the speak for themselves. Check out the series here. And don’t miss this section, which contains the FOI saga and all of the primary source documents.

This is also powerful evidence of why internal complaint files must be public — and they are not in many states — and what lurks in the darkness when such records are kept secret.

Milwaukee Police Department

Image via Wikipedia

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The Bad Exemption Factory Just Keeps on Pumping ‘Em Out

And in news of the truly inane…has anyone considered what happens when the death involves, say, a controversial police shooting???

A bill seeking to exempt depictions of deaths from Florida’s public records laws is making its way through the legislature, and freedom-of-information advocates are warning that the repercussions of such a broad measure could be detrimental to the public’s ability to hold law enforcement and government agents accountable.

“It would be harder for the public to know about these kinds of issues, and much harder, if not impossible for any oversight of law enforcement,” says Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit based in Tallahassee. “And not just law enforcement, quite frankly, because this is any video, or any recording of either the killing of a person or the events leading up to the killing of a person. So for example, in the Tampa Bay area a couple years ago we had the Carlie Brucia case where the security tapes that were critical in that case would have been exempt from public disclosure under this bill.” #

Eleven-year-old Carlie Brucia was abducted and murdered in 2004, and the security tapes from a car wash near her home captured a man leading the young girl to his car shortly before she was reported missing.  With the help of technology provided by NASA to enhance the images, the FBI was eventually able to locate Brucia’s killer and bring him to justice.

State Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, says her bill stems from the police dashboard video recording of the murder of two Tampa police officers, and was written to protect victims’ family members.

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Unintended Consequences in Utah?

A nice look at the collateral damage likely to occur as a result of HB477:

While much of the focus of the controversial HB477 has been on how it might affect the public’s access to state lawmakers, the new law may also potentially affect thousand of residents in a much more direct way.

Local police departments typically receive hundreds and even thousands of requests for reports and records each year through the Government Records Access and Management Act. But the majority of those requests do not come from the media.

“A very small percentage,” Rick Fletcher, records coordinator for the Unified Police Department, said of the number of GRAMA requests he receives from the media versus the requests that come from the public.

Whether HB477 will ultimately affect both the media and the public’s access to police records isn’t completely clear. Attorney Jeffrey Hunt, an expert on GRAMA, said the new law — which goes into effect July 1 — does not create any new specific exceptions for law enforcement information.

“However, it would greatly restrict the public’s access to crime information. Any text messages, instant messages or similar electronic records created by law enforcement officers would be totally off limits to the public, even if those records concerned criminal reports, incidents or other public matters,” he said. “This would essentially create an entire category of electronic law enforcement records that would be secret and off limits to the public.”

It begs the question: did anyone who voted for this disaster stop for a nanosecond to consider its scope?


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Newish Pa. FOI law no panacea…

A Pennsylvania state appeals court ruled Thursday that incident reports filed by state police officers are not public records, citing an exemption in the state’s Right to Know Law that protects from public disclosure “a record of an agency relating to or resulting in a criminal investigation.”

The court’s 6-1 ruling reversed an earlier decision by the state Office of Open Records that such documents should be made public.

In February of 2009, the Potter Leader-Enterprise of Coudersport, Pa., submitted an open records request seeking an incident report involving an altercation at a private residence. The state police initially denied the request.

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An indictment for sharing information?

Map of Texas highlighting Nueces County
Image via Wikipedia

This is an incredible story

A Nueces County grand jury on Friday indicted the executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards on two felony counts related to the release of information about an inmate suicide.

Adan Munoz, 62, was indicted on two counts of misuse of official information, according to online court records.

District Attorney Anna Jimenez said the charges stem from allegations that Munoz released a document to KIII-TV reporter Rudy Trevino and Caller-Times reporter Jaime Powell that related to a suicide at the Nueces County Jail.

Munoz has not been arrested and said he only heard about the allegations from reporters. He had no further comment on the indictment.

Nueces County Sheriff Jim Kaelin said Munoz responded to a public records request from at least one reporter by sending a document from an ongoing criminal investigation at the Nueces County Jail.

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