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Cwiek v. City of Philadelphia Attorney’s Office

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  1. Local Legal Initiative

Court: Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas

Date Filed: July 9, 2021

Update: On July 20, 2021, Common Pleas Judge Joshua H. Roberts denied the Philly Gay News’ request for records related to the investigation of Nizah Morris’ death.

Background: In 2008, a Pennsylvania court issued an order granting the Philadelphia Gay News access to a reconstituted case file for an investigation into the 2002 death of Nizah Morris, a transgender woman. Left out of that case file, however, were about 30 witness interviews.

In March 2021, the Philadelphia Gay News filed a motion in Common Pleas Court seeking access to the missing records. A few months later, the news outlet issued a subpoena to Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner requesting his attendance at an upcoming hearing and asking that he bring with him the entire Morris case file. On July 13, 2021, a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge excused DA Krasner from personally attending a hearing on July 19, but required a representative of the office to attend the hearing instead.

As Philadelphia Gay News reporter Tim Cwiek has reported, attorneys for the city argue that the news outlet is entitled to access only the case records kept by the police, not the district attorney’s office. However, the Philadelphia Gay News contends that the police and district attorney investigations were conducted jointly, and that all of the records for the Morris case should be made publicly accessible under the 2008 order.

For his part, Krasner has stated publicly his desire to release information about the Morris case, but he has also raised the possibility of being barred from doing so because of Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act, or CHRIA. The law governs the collection, disclosure and expungement of criminal history record information.

Our Position: The court should enforce the settlement provisions under the 2008 order and release the Morris case file records.

  • CHRIA does not create a per se bar to the release of records related to a criminal investigation. Instead, a court should review — on a case-by-case and record-by-record basis — the specific information in the requested records to determine if it is “investigative information” that may be excluded from public access.
  • CHRIA cannot be used as a shield to prevent disclosure of all records in the Nizah Morris case.

Quote: “Given that no active, criminal investigation has been shown in the record of these proceedings, and that the documents are merely part of a ‘reconstituted’ case file, CHRIA should not be used as a shield to disclosure and the records should be provided pursuant to the consent order.”