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Union denied access to investigation records under records law

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         MICHIGAN         Freedom of Information         Oct 5, 2000    

Union denied access to investigation records under records law

  • The Supreme Court of Michigan decides that a union’s interest in obtaining police misconduct file is not more important than a sheriff’s interest in keeping the file closed.

A union seeking to access police internal investigation records under the Michigan Freedom of Information law was denied access to the records by the Supreme Court of Michigan in September. The court found that the union’s interest in accessing the records for a labor lawsuit was not sufficient to overcome the sheriff’s interest in keeping the records closed.

The court first determined that the union could seek access to the records under the Michigan freedom of information law. Labor disputes are generally heard before an administrative agency that functions under its own set of agency laws. However, the court determined that bringing an action in court did not preclude the union from using the freedom of information act to obtain the records.

The court then analyzed whether the misconduct files met the statutory exemption that closes law enforcement records unless the public’s interest in opening the records is greater than public’s interest in keeping the records closed. Effectively, the statute creates a presumption in favor of closure because if the interest in opening the record does not outweigh the interest in keeping the record closed, then the record remains closed.

The sheriff filed an affidavit in the case that listed several reasons for closure of the records, including protection of confidentiality of informants, maintaining the secret identity of undercover police officers, and keeping the contents of operational instructions and staff manuals secret. When weighed against the union’s interest in having the records for its lawsuit, the court determined that the sheriff’s interest was more important and, therefore, refused to release the records under the Michigan freedom of information law.

Because the public’s interest in the media accessing police internal investigation files is much different than the interest the union had in obtaining records for its lawsuit, the effect of this decision on the media may be limited, according to Dawn Phillips-Hertz, general counsel for the Michigan Press Association.

“This case involved a very unique set of facts,” she said. “Beyond this limited context, this case may not have a wide-ranging ripple affect for the media.”

(Kent Co. Deputy Sheriffs’ Assoc. v. Kent Co. Sheriff and Kent Co. Board of Commissioners) CC

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