PENNSYLVANIA — In late February, an appeals court upheld a trial court decision stating that the Washington County government’s entire cellular phone bill, including itemization sheets, is a public record.
However, the district attorney will be able to black out more numbers than before because the Commonwealth Court broadened the trial court’s interpretation of the investigation exception to the open records law.
The trial court said that the exception, which allows agency investigation files to be excluded from the definition of public records, applied to “active” criminal investigations.
The Commonwealth Court said the exception is not limited to ongoing investigations. Rather, redaction should be allowed for telephone numbers involving the “institution, progress or result of an investigation,” the court said. The court said the exception may even apply to completed investigations.
The case started when the Observer-Reporter of Washington and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked to review the county’s itemized cellular telephone records in the summer of 1993, and the county denied their requests.
The county provides 21 cellular telephones to various governmental departments and public officials.
The newspapers sued the county in the Court of Common Pleas in Washington, which ruled in August 1993 that all cellular telephone records are public documents, with the caveat that the district attorney and a drug enforcement task force are permitted to “remove or obliterate” certain numbers.
Judge James Kelley dissented in the appeals decision, saying that the itemization sheets should not be available for public disclosure.
(PG Publishing Co. v. County of Washington; Media Counsel: Perry Napolitano, Pittsburgh)
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