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Judge upholds right to withhold police dispatch recordings

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    News Media Update         KANSAS         Freedom of Information    

Judge upholds right to withhold police dispatch recordings

  • A district court judge said local law enforcement officials can withhold police dispatch recordings under the “criminal investigation records” exemption to the state open records act.

Aug. 5, 2004 — A district court judge in Lawrence, Kan., ruled last week that police dispatch recordings can be withheld under an exemption to the state open records act, then declined to clarify when the public’s interest in such records would justify disclosure.

Judges in Kansas have the authority to make exempted records open when public interest outweighs the need for government secrecy.

Judge Paula Martin ruled against the Lawrence-Journal World July 30, holding that police dispatch audiotapes, which are public records in Kansas, can be withheld under the “criminal investigation records” exemption to the state freedom of information law. She then refused to issue a declaratory judgment, at the request of the Journal World , that all police dispatch recordings, “now and in the future,” be made public under any circumstance.

Because the Lawrence Police Department released the tapes to the newspaper after they were played during a preliminary hearing in open court, Martin said the point was “moot.”

Attorney Mike Merriam, who represented the Journal World , said the “moot” ruling sets a worrisome precedent that will lead to extraneous and costly litigation.

“My biggest concern with this decision is the court accepting the notion that open records lawsuits may be frustrated for different reasons,” Merriam said. “This was a public event that requires mandatory disclosure . . . anybody could have listened to the dispatch recordings live on the radio.”

The dispatch recordings were made Aug. 26, 2003, during an automobile pursuit by police of Nam Ouk Cho. Cho was caught only after he crashed into another car, killing the driver, Judith Vellucci, 56. Cho is charged with second-degree murder; his trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 11.

After reporting on the chase and crash, the newspaper sought access to the police dispatch recordings under the Kansas Open Records Act. The police department denied the request, saying the tapes were part of the criminal investigation file.

Journal-World managing editor Richard Brack said in a July 31 article in the newspaper that he was disappointed Martin refused to address the key issue of public interest in open records, adding that the people of Lawrence have a right to know how their police force works.

“Can the public have confidence in a police force that operates in secret?,” Brack asked.

(Lawrence Journal-World v. City of Lawrence Police Dept; Media Counsel: Mike Merriam, Topeka) TS

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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