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High court will not review access to police records

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    NMU         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Freedom of Information         Dec 21, 1999    

High court will not review access to police records

  • A Kentucky law that limits access to police accident reports will not be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court in light of the Court’s decision to let stand a similar law in California.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced in mid-December that it will not review a ruling in a Kentucky case involving a state law that limits public access to police records of automobile accidents.

The issue is similar to one the Supreme Court decided Dec. 7 in Los Angeles Police Department v. United Reporting Publishing. In that case, the Supreme Court said a California law that limits public access to police records is not an unconstitutional burden on free speech.

The California law requires people seeking access to police records to swear that they will use the records for only five authorized uses — including journalism — and not for commercial purposes. The purpose of the law, according to its backers, is to protect the privacy of arrestees from potential harassment and from solicitation by attorneys, social workers, bail bondsmen, and others.

Just because the law differentiates between various classes of record users, with some groups being allowed to use the information while others are not, does not mean the law is unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 vote. The fact that California can limit access to police records entirely means that the state can allow access to only particular groups, the Court said.

The purpose of the Kentucky law is similar to that of the California one; to protect the privacy of people named in police records, in this case, accident reports. It limits access to accident reports to parties associated with an accident and the news media, among others. A group of attorneys and chiropractors who used the names and addresses of accident victims to solicit clients challenged the Kentucky law in federal District Court in Louisville in 1994.

The District Court granted an injunction against application of the new law, ruling that the law unconstitutionally burdened commercial speech. Ruling only on procedural issues and without reaching the merits of the underlying case, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Circuit) dissolved the injunction and remanded the case to the trial court in January 1999.

In a two-sentence opinion issued Dec. 13, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for a decision consistent with the Court’s ruling in United Reporting.

(McClure v. Amelkin)

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© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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