Monday, July 2, 2012

Judge rules in favor of T-P in records dispute with city

Posted By on Mon, Jul 2, 2012 at 11:31 AM

Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Lloyd Medley ordered that the city should be required to hand over a full, unredacted police report requested by Times-Picayune crime reporter Brendan McCarthy in April. Though Medley ordered the city to turn over the records "immediately," he did stipulate that the city may hold back the records should it decide to request a review by the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.

Asked if or when the city will actually be required to hand over the document, attorney Lori Mince, who represented the newspaper, said it was still unclear. The city has 30 days to file for an appeal, she explained.

The lawsuit, filed on June 22 by The T-P, stems from an incident involving a lost or stolen phone in April. McCarthy testified today that he was listening to a police scanner when he heard a conversation between two New Orleans Police Department officers where the ranking officer seemed to be instructing his subordinate to reclassify the incident from a theft to a "signal 21," meaning "lost or stolen property." Incidents classified "signal 21" are not reported in the city's Uniform Crime Report statistics, Mince said today.

(More after the jump)

McCarthy submitted a public records request to the NOPD.

"I asked for dispatch communications from that particular [radio] channel," McCarthy testified, as well as all documents corresponding to the call, including the incident report.

Nearly a month went by before McCarthy received those documents from the city. When he did, in mid-May, information — including the location of the alleged crime and any identifying information about the victim — was blacked out. McCarthy requested the full, unredacted report, but the city denied it. The newspaper sued, claiming that the redactions violate the state open records law.

"This record in its entirety is unquestionably a public record," Mince said at today's hearing, arguing that the city cannot claim a "blanket exception for victims" in providing public records. Mince added that state law only makes an exception for victims of a sexual offense.

"This is about victim privacy. It's about victim safety," Matthew Lindsay, a lawyer representing the city, argued. Lindsay said that the police department provided the report to McCarthy as requested but removed identifying information to protect the victim. Lindsay offered a hypothetical example of someone whose keys have been stolen.

"The assailant can then submit a records request and get my information," including name and address, Lindsay said. "It's a public safety concern."

Medley agreed that the city has to weigh victim privacy against the public's right to access full police records when it receives such a request. But he disagreed that in this case the city should have deferred to the privacy concern, saying that uncovering potentially improper crime statistic downgrading — if indeed that is what happened — was in the public interest.

"There's a greater need to side with the plaintiff," Medley said, "to make sure that downgrading does not take place."

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