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Union denied access to investigation records

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  1. Freedom of Information
From the Fall 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 35.

From the Fall 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 35.

The Supreme Court of Michigan ruled in September that a union’s interest in obtaining a police misconduct file for a labor lawsuit was not more important than a sheriff’s interest in keeping the file closed.

Because the court addressed only the union’s intentions for the file, and not the public’s general interest in seeing internal police investigation records, a prominent media lawyer in the state believes that the decision will have little effect on the media’s ability to gain similar records for newsgathering purposes.

“This case involved a very unique set of facts. Beyond this limited context, this case may not have a wide-ranging ripple effect for the media.” according to Dawn Phillips-Hertz, general counsel for the Michigan Press Association.

The Kent County Deputy Sheriff’s Association had attempted to gain access to the internal investigation records under the Michigan labor laws to prepare for arbitration with the county on behalf of a union member. The Michigan Employment Relations Commission denied that request, and the union turned to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, seeking to get the records directly from the sheriff’s office.

The trial court granted the union access to the records without requiring a trial on the issue. However, the Court of Appeals in Kent disagreed with the trial court and determined that the union could not receive the records under the state’s FOI law. The union appealed the issue to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court first determined that the union could seek access to the records under the Michigan FOI law. Labor disputes are generally heard before the Employment Relations Commission, which functions under its own set of agency laws. However, the court determined that bringing an action in court did not preclude the union from using the freedom of information act to obtain the records.

The court then analyzed whether the misconduct files met the statutory exemption that closes law enforcement records unless the public’s interest in opening the records is greater than public’s interest in keeping the records closed. The court looked to the interests expressed by the parties themselves in order to make this determination.

The sheriff filed a detailed affidavit outlining several interests in maintaining closure of the records, including protection of confidentiality of informants, maintaining the secret identity of undercover police officers and keeping the contents of operational instructions and staff manuals secret. When weighed against the union’s interest in having the records for arbitration preparation, the court determined that the sheriff could withhold the records because the interest in keeping the records confidential was superior to the union’s interest in receiving them.