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State high court closes access to police misconduct files

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WEST VIRGINIA         Freedom of Information         Jun 8, 2001    

State high court closes access to police misconduct files

  • The West Virgina Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that preventing ‘fishing expeditions’ negates a public interest in police records.

West Virginia’s highest court has determined that records of investigations into police misconduct are not public because releasing the records would be an unreasonable invasion of the officer’s personal privacy, according to a decision handed down on May 15.

Laura Manns requested the records of all of the internal police investigations of officers employed by the Charleston, W. Va., police department following her arrest in 1996 for refusing to pay a bus fare. Manns claimed that the arresting officer, Cathy Smith, used excessive force. Manns made a state open records request for records of internal police investigations of any Charleston police officer and, specifically, records of investigations involving Smith.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals referred to a five-part test to determine whether release of the records of a document would invade an officer’s privacy. The court said it must factor the extent of the invasion of privacy, the value of the public interest, whether the information was available from another source, whether the source of the information expected confidentiality and if there is a form of relief that would limit the extent of the invasion of privacy. The court acknowledged that “the lawfulness of police operations is a matter of great concern to the state’s citizenry,” but was concerned that “compelled disclosure of police investigatory material might result in ‘fishing expeditions’ and thereby encourage frivolous litigation.” The court said that this concern negated any public interest in the records. Additionally, the court assumed that the information was given with an expectation of confidentiality. Without further discussion, the court determined that these factors balanced together made release of the records an unwarranted invasion of the officers’ personal privacy. Therefore, under state law these records were exempt from public disclosure, according to the court.

A lower court had ruled in favor of Manns in February 2000. The lower court determined that releasing the records was not an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and ordered the city to do so.

(Manns v. City of Charleston) CC

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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