Court: State Police Incident Reports Not Public
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Incident reports filed by Pennsylvania state troopers do not have to be released to the public, Commonwealth Court ruled Thursday in a reversal of the state open records office.
The 6-1 majority ruling said the forms are covered by an exception to the Right-to-Know Law that allows agencies to withhold criminal investigative records.
The case involves a February 2009 request by the Potter Leader-Enterprise for a complete incident report about a fight. Commonwealth Court found that the incident report did not amount to a police blotter, which are public records, and therefore did not have to be released.
“The incident report is not a ‘chronological listing of arrests,’’’ wrote Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer. “Rather, it is a description of an investigation by the PSP into a complaint of criminal activity.’’
The document included notes of interviews with a witness and the people involved, as well as boxes for troopers to check off if a suspect could be named, fingerprints were collected or there was a “unique unusual method of operation,’’ Jubelirer said.
Donald Gilliland, who at the time was the Leader-Enterprise’s managing editor, filed a request for additional information after being handed a press release that did not name the two people involved.
The press release said the matter began with an argument and then degenerated into pushing and punching. It described each of the two people involved as an “actor,’’ saying one “proceeded to spin ‘doughnuts’ in the driveway’’ as the other “threw recently purchased meat products out the vehicle into the driveway and yard area in a circular pattern.’’
Jubelirer’s opinion noted the Legislature has “manifested a clear intent’’ that police blotter information – defined as a chronological listing of arrests – should be public. She said a state police lawyer said in court that the agency tracks arrests electronically, but that individual police stations do not maintain logs.
Jubelirer also noted the Right-to-Know Law provides access to electronic records, suggesting another route people might take to obtain the information Gilliland sought unsuccessfully.
In the dissent, Judge Dan Pellegrini said the Potter County incident report contained very little information and did not document a criminal investigation.
“It is merely the initial form the trooper fills out to show the ‘who, what, where and when’ that any observer of the scene could discern without investigation,’’ Pellegrini wrote.
Lt. Myra Taylor said the ruling “emboldened and relieved’’ the state police.
“Persons must know that, should they be a victim of a crime, we care and will be there to serve them, to include a proper and thorough investigation of the incident, and to provide them with the assistance and protections they are afforded by law,’’ she said.
Office of Open Records director Terry Mutchler said she was reviewing the decision to decide whether to appeal.
“Every public official in every public agency is for open records unless it’s about their own records,’’ she said. “That’s where we look to the court to offer us a structure so that every agency ... sticks to the structure and the design here that was created by the Legislature. And the Legislature said, loud and clear, ‘more disclosure,’ and this opinion doesn’t necessarily line up in this regard.’’
Leader-Enterprise publisher James Monks said the ruling was “unfortunate’’ but did not surprise him.
Gilliland, now a reporter with The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, said he was concerned that the courts were allowing the state police to make arrests without releasing the names of those who were arrested.
“I think releasing the name of a person who is charged with a crime is the most basic form of public accountability you can get,’’ he said.