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High court exempts police records, report lists from disclosure

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Freedom of Information         Oct 30, 2001    

High court exempts police records, report lists from disclosure

  • Police records and lists compiled to determine whether a crime had been committed are exempt under the state’s Open Records Law, a unanimous court held.

The California Supreme Court unanimously held on Oct. 1 that police reports and a compiled list of records relating to the investigation of a routine traffic stop are exempt from disclosure under the California open records law.

The high court denied Elgin Haynie, 42, disclosure of any records about an incident involving a deputy who stopped Haynie and three passengers in a blue Ford van, mistaking them for a group of suspicious people reportedly driving around in a similar van.

The court held that the investigation reports were exempt from disclosure because they were created for the purpose of uncovering information about a possible violation of the law. The court also reversed an appellate court decision ordering the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to provide a list of all police records related to Haynie, saying the requirement would impose significant costs on public agencies.

Deputy Sheriff David Mertens stopped Haynie’s blue Ford van in July 1999 minutes after a witness reported three teen-agers getting into a blue Ford van with pistols or squirt guns. Mertens questioned Haynie and three teen-aged passengers and searched the van.

The deputy handcuffed Haynie after he “became argumentative.” But he released all four after determining they were not related to the call. No charges were filed, but Haynie claimed he was injured during the incident and was hospitalized for several days.

Haynie filed a lawsuit on July 12, 1999, against the county for personal injuries. He also submitted a request for records concerning the incident, including handwritten notes, a tape-recording of Mertens questioning Haynie and a police broadcast describing the suspects and their vehicle.

The sheriff’s department refused to provide any records under an exemption to the state’s open records law for investigation records but provided a summary of the incident. The summary noted that Mertens stopped Haynie’s van when he noticed “furtive movements” by the driver and passengers.

The report also noted that the deputy found Haynie attempting to injure his wrists by striking the pavement after he was handcuffed. The deputy called paramedics to the scene. But the paramedics did not find any injury and noted that Haynie didn’t complain of pain.

The trial court denied Haynie’s record request, but the state Court of Appeal directed the county to release records and ordered officials to create a log of documents exempt from disclosure.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association filed an amicus brief in support of Haynie, arguing that the county failed to show that records were exempt under the open records law.

The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court, noting that “routine” investigations would be impaired by disclosure. The court said suspects would refuse to cooperate by disappearing or threatening witnesses, citizens would be reluctant to report crimes, and evidence of crimes would be destroyed.

(Haynie v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Attorney for Amicus: Timothy L. Alger, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges, Los Angeles) MM

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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