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State high court restricts open records access from behind bars

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State high court restricts open records access from behind bars

  • The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia ruled that prison inmates may not use state Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain public records for use in lawsuits alleging their constitutional rights have been violated.

Nov. 18, 2003 — The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, the state’s highest court, ruled that prison inmates could not use state Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain public records for use in habeas corpus proceedings. The ruling is contrary to the language of the FOI Act which says that “every person has a right to inspect or copy any public record,” unless specifically exempted by the act. There is no exemption under the act for habeas proceedings.

A habeas corpus proceeding is a civil lawsuit brought by a prisoner to challenge the constitutionality of his or her imprisonment.

The court’s Nov. 10 decision combined the appeals of two prisoners, Roger Wyant and Lorenzo Valentine. Both had requested court records related to their convictions under the FOI Act in order to prepare habeas corpus petitions. Court records in West Virginia are public documents accessible to anyone under the FOI Act.

In both cases the trial courts which held the records refused to produce them because under the habeas rules a plaintiff is entitled to discovery from the state only after the petition has been filed and leave granted by the court.

In upholding the trial courts, the Supreme Court of Appeals held, “The Rules Governing Post-Conviction Habeas Corpus Proceedings blend to create a balanced system that contemplates the rights of the inmate petitioners as well as the interests of the court system. . . . To allow inmates to use the FOIA to obtain records from circuit courts prior to filing their petitions for habeas corpus and initiating the procedure so carefully set out in the habeas corpus rules would upset this balance.”

In a footnote the court recognized that the decision was in conflict with the language of the FOI Act, but said that a more specific rule governs when it conflicts with the FOI Act. Because the Rules Governing Habeas Corpus Proceedings specifically addressed the habeas proceeding, they trumped the more general language of the FOI Act.

The holding creates the unusual situation where a prisoner contemplating a habeas corpus petition does not have access to public records that every other member of the public, presumably even other prisoners, can see.

Justice Joseph Albright dissented from part of the decision and may file a separate opinion.

(State of West Virginia ex rel. Wyant v. Brotherton; State of West Virginia ex rel. Valentine v. Frazier) GP


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