Criminal defendants cannot use records law for trial research
OHIO — Criminal defendants may not use Ohio’s open records act to seek materials relating to their pending cases, but must rely instead solely on the state’s rules of criminal discovery, the Supreme Court of Ohio held in a 5-2 decision in early September.
The court also held prosecutors’ files and law enforcement agencies’ investigatory records exempt from disclosure to any requester under the state’s open records act when they concern a pending criminal case, unless the requester is entitled to the information under the state’s Rule 16 criminal discovery rule.
Speaking for the court in an opinion consolidating three criminal cases, Justice Andy Douglas noted that Ohio’s Criminal Rule 16 does not provide “complete” discovery of all materials held about a case, so defendants often resort to the open records act to get otherwise unavailable material.
In doing so, he continued, they add as much as two years to the adjudication of their cases while courts and officials process the requests. “The people also have a right to a speedy trial þ a speedy trial of an indicted defendant,” Douglas stated.
The court ruled that the open records law had been applied too liberally in the past, rendering the “specific investigatory work product” and “trial preparation record” exceptions to the open records act meaningless. The entire contents of prosecutors’ files and all police records accumulated in connection with particular criminal proceedings have been subject to disclosure, according to the court.
Douglas found it “difficult to conceive” of anything in a prosecutor’s file on a pending criminal matter that would not be compiled in anticipation of a criminal proceeding or in preparation for trial, and therefore exempt from disclosure.
The court emphasized that the decision only applies to public records in “pending criminal proceedings,” which lose their exempt status only after all proceedings have been completed.
(State ex rel. Steckman v. Jackson)