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Two decisions consider access to police personnel files

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  1. Freedom of Information
Two decisions consider access to police personnel files 05/03/99 OHIO--Two recent Ohio cases help define the state's open records laws…

Two decisions consider access to police personnel files

05/03/99

OHIO–Two recent Ohio cases help define the state’s open records laws in the wake of a federal decision that exempted from disclosure much of the information contained in police officers’ personnel files.

A 1998 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir.), Kallstrom v. Columbus, exempted information that defendants in criminal actions might use “to achieve nefarious ends.” Among the restricted items are police officers’ home addresses, telephone numbers, and medical information, as well as the names of spouses, children and parents.

In the cases, the Ohio Supreme Court followed its previous decision, while a trial court declined to apply Kallstrom.

In Ohio ex rel. Keller v. Cox, the state Supreme Court in Columbus held in early April that all personnel and internal affairs records relating to a detective were exempt from discovery. The information had been requested by a federal public defender to help a defendant as part of his pretrial investigation and preparation. The defendant believed that the detective would be called as a witness against him in a drug conspiracy trial.

The appellate court grounded its decision in the rules of criminal discovery, and the high court in Columbus affirmed in a 6-1 decision, but on different grounds.

The records sought by the defendant are not part of criminal discovery because they have nothing to do with the crime or the case, the high court wrote.

Furthermore, the Kallstrom decision exempts the records from disclosure under state open records laws. “This information should be protected not only by the constitutional right of privacy, but, also, we are persuaded that there must be a ‘good sense’ rule when such information about a law enforcement officer is sought by a defendant in a criminal case,” the court wrote.

The court did not completely preclude access, however. Previous decisions by the high court allow records reflecting on “discipline, citizen complaints, or how an officer does his or her job can be obtained” through internal affairs files.

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Deborah Cook argued that barring access to a broad range of information before the court reviewed the documents in camera was premature. Kallstrom does not hold that the constitutional right of privacy exempts the entire contents of officers’ personnel files, she noted.

The majority’s holding, which assumes that all of the detective’s personnel records are exempt, is not supported by the record or Kallstrom, she wrote.

In Booher v. City of Hamilton, an Ohio trial court in Hamilton, held in late December held that the personnel records of a police sergeant who was placed on administrative leave following an altercation were to be disclosed. Rejecting the sergeant’s arguments that the records were exempt from disclosure because they were confidential investigatory records, Judge Anthony Valen ordered the information released with only the names on uncharged suspects and personal information of city employees redacted, according to attorney Richard Goehler. More notable was the fact that the court did not apply the Kallstrom rationale in its decision, Goehler said.

(Ohio ex rel. Keller v. Cox; Booher v. City of Hamilton: Media Counsel, Richard M. Goehler, Cincinnati)