Motives cannot be considered in records request, court finds
NEW HAMPSHIRE–In an early December decision, the state Supreme Court in Concord held that a trial court cannot consider a newspaper’s motives for seeking access to arrest records when ruling on whether access would constitute an unwarranted violation of the arrestee’s privacy.
In 1994, Alan Rudman was arrested and charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated. The charge was later reduced and Rudman pleaded guilty to speeding.
The (Manchester) Union Leader newspaper sought access to several documents in Rudman’s police file because it was investigating whether the city of Nashua regularly reduces or dismisses a high number of DWI cases. The city said that the records were exempt from disclosure because releasing the records would constitute an unwarranted invasion of Rudman’s privacy.
In 1995, the newspaper petitioned the trial court in Nashua to compel the city to disclose the records. The newspaper stated its reason for requesting the records was the investigation into the city’s mishandling of DWI cases.
The trial court concluded that newspaper’s interest in disclosure of the records was outweighed by Rudman’s privacy interest, and noted that the newspaper’s reason, “in light of the fact that it only [sought] the records for a single arrestee, is dubious at best.”
The newspaper appealed to the state Supreme Court, which noted that “the plaintiff’s motives for seeking disclosure are irrelevant” and found that the trial court used the wrong test. It should have balanced the public interest in disclosure against the interests in nondisclosure, the court said. Furthermore, the high court noted that the state legislature provided that the balance is weighted in favor of disclosure. The purpose of the Right-to-Know Law “is to provide the utmost information to the public about what its government is up to,” the court noted.
The high court vacated the trial court’s denial of the newspaper’s petition and sent the case back to the trial court for a new ruling using a balancing test that does not take into account the newspaper’s motives. (Union Leader Corporation v. City of Nashua; Media Counsel: Gregory Sullivan, Manchester)