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Police must release incident reports involving juveniles

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WEST VIRGINIA -- Police should make incident reports involving juveniles available after redacting material that would reveal the juveniles' identities…

WEST VIRGINIA — Police should make incident reports involving juveniles available after redacting material that would reveal the juveniles’ identities or information about ongoing law-enforcement investigations, according to a unanimous mid-December decision by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia in Charleston.

However, the court found that information such as the time and location of the crime and the names of any witnesses or victims could lead to identification of the juvenile, and should be redacted from the reports.

The Parkersburg News asked the City of Williamstown in early March 1993 to provide copies of a police incident report concerning a mid-February 1993 fight involving two juveniles and a gun. The newspaper requested redacted copies that did not identify the juveniles.

After the city denied the request, the newspaper appealed in April 1993, asking the Circuit Court of Wood County to enjoin the city from withholding information in the reports. The city, in turn, asked the court to dismiss the action.

The court granted the city’s motion to dismiss in August 1993. The court concluded that the report was not a public record under the open records act because other state statutory law specifies that juvenile records are not public. Even if the report were a public record, the court continued, it would fall within the state open records act’s exemption for law-enforcement investigatory records. The newspaper appealed in September 1993 to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

The state supreme court concluded that police incident reports are public records. The court noted that the public has an interest in information about crime, that police conduct the public’s business when they respond to reported incidents, that the reports are recorded by public officers and are in the control of a public agency.

The exemptions concerning investigatory law-enforcement and juvenile records do not justify a blanket policy of non-disclosure, the court found. Such materials are public as long as release would not compromise an ongoing law enforcement investigation or reveal the identities of the juveniles.

The court held that the city should release the incident report in redacted form without any information that would identify the juveniles. “Because information such as: the exact time coupled with the exact location of the incident; the names of witnesses; and, the identity of the complainant would not preclude the press from conducting further research and interviews leading to disclosure of the names of the juveniles involved, this type of information should also be redacted,” the court held.

Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded the circuit court’s decision. (Ogden Newspapers v. City of Williamstown; Media Counsel: Jacqueline Wilson, Clarksburg, W. Va.)