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Supreme Court says newspaper can access police database

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    News Media Update         DELAWARE         Freedom of Information    

Supreme Court says newspaper can access police database

  • Seven years of protracted Freedom of Information Act litigation ended last month, when the state Supreme Court overturned a decision that limited The (Wilmington) News Journal’s access to computerized criminal justice records.

Jan. 14, 2004 — The Supreme Court of Delaware capped a tortuous freedom of information effort by The (Wilmington) News Journal in late December when it ruled, in a case that began in 1997, that the newspaper can see computerized law enforcement records that will allow it to assess state criminal justice trends.

The News Journal can tap Delaware’s law enforcement database for the names of officers who make arrests, for data about arrests that do not result in convictions, and for geographic information showing where crimes are committed. The unanimous ruling Dec. 30 reversed a decision by a lower court.

The newspaper had previously won access to some of the state’s crime records throughout its lengthy litigation. It filed its first state FOI Act request in 1997 for 10 years of data from the managerial board of the state’s criminal justice information system.

The court’s ruling last month was not a complete victory for the newspaper, however. It cut by half the lower court’s award of attorneys fees. The court found that the provision in the FOI Act granting attorneys fees to FOI litigants is intended to encourage individuals to use the law and, it reasoned, newspapers would use the law anyway needing no encouragement to do so.

The newspaper agreed from the beginning that all names and personally identifying information of those arrested would be withheld. It simply sought enough data to report comprehensively and statistically on how individuals were treated once they became subject to the criminal justice system.

Initially, reporters sought 300 separate pieces of information from each record in the government’s database, but reduced their request in 1999 after a judge ruled it was too burdensome for the agency to fill.

The managerial board ultimately agreed to assign fictional numbers to individuals’ cases so that their contacts with the criminal justice system could be tracked without actual identification of the individuals themselves. In the course of the litigation, both the board and the newspaper called upon privacy experts to determine what could be disclosed without identifying offenders.

The attorney general asked the courts to protect the names of police officers as a matter of personal privacy and safety. In reversing a lower court decision, the Supreme Court in December said an exemption in the state’s FOI Act protecting confidential information about witnesses and “intelligence personnel” must be read in the light of privacy concerns, not safety concerns.

The court rejected that the exemption protects information about officers who are not undercover officers, finding no privacy interest in public records of the arrests they make.

(Gannett Co. v. Board of Managers of the Delaware Criminal Justice Information System; Media Counsel: Richard Elliott, Richards, Layton & Finger, Wilmington) RD


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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