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Kentucky appellate court upholds withholding of personal information in police records

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Kentucky Court of Appeals partially affirmed a lower court's ruling on Friday, finding that the city of Hopkinsville properly…

The Kentucky Court of Appeals partially affirmed a lower court's ruling on Friday, finding that the city of Hopkinsville properly redacted certain information about victims and witnesses in police reports and arrest citations requested by the Kentucky New Era.

In a unanimous ruling, the court upheld the redaction of driver's license numbers, home addresses and telephone numbers of both witnesses and victims of crimes under an exception to the state's Open Records Act for personal information that, if released, would "constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Additionally, under the same exception, the court ruled that all juveniles' names could be redacted from the records at issue.

This appeal stemmed from a records request made in 2009 by then New Era reporter Julia Hunter. According to court documents, Hunter requested to inspect eight months of police department records, including arrest citations and incident reports. The journalist requested to view all such records that resulted in certain charges, including first-degree stalking, harassing communications, harassment and first-degree terroristic threatening. The city declined to provide any records on open cases or those regarding juveniles. Additionally, certain information identifying victims, witnesses, and subjects contained in the documents were removed.

Upon the denial of New Era's request, the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General issued a decision that under the state's open records act, the city could not lawfully withhold certain records. The city appealed this decision and a trial court held the city acted within the law by removing personal information from records, "on the basis that the privacy interests in the information outweighed the public's interest in its disclosure."

In its decision, the appellate court first examined whether the requested documents contained personal information. The court cited a 1994 decision in Zink v. Commonwealth, which held that individuals had "at least some expectation of privacy" in injury reports submitted to the state Department of Workers' Claims — such as the employee's name, home address, and telephone number — and that the release of the information would infringe on "the employees' right to privacy in the home."

The court found that disclosure of the information was also of a personal nature.

"'[T]he right to be left alone,' is one of 'our most time-honored rights' and 'has long been steadfastly recognized by our laws and customs," wrote Judge Laurance VanMeter. "We believe that allegations of stalking, harassment and terroristic threatening of a juvenile 'touches upon the most intimate and personal features of private lives.'"

The court then held that the public interest in the release of the information did not outweigh the privacy interests, even though the newspaper argued that without the information, "its ability to inspect the Hopkinsville Police Department is burdened because it becomes harder to contact the witnesses and victims of these incidents."

The court held that the public interest in release would be "minimal," since it would not reveal anything about the police department's execution of its legal duties.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Kentucky – Open Government Guide: 1. What kind of records are covered?

· Kentucky – Open Government Guide: A. Exemptions in the open records statute.