Medina County Courthouse

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Court Rules Alleged Sex Abuse Victim Entitled to Redacted Copies of Police Records from Investigation

In Case Where Accused Priest Was Not Indicted by Grand Jury

State ex rel. Rocker v. Guernsey Cty. Sheriff’s Office, Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-3288.
Guernsey App. No. 09-CA-4, 2009-Ohio-6336. Judgment of the court of appeals reversed, and cause remanded to the court of appeals.
Brown, C.J., and Pfeifer, O'Connor, Lanzinger, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
Lundberg Stratton and O'Donnell, JJ., dissent.

(July 20, 2010) The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that some of the investigatory records compiled or accessed by the Guernsey County Sheriff’s Office during its investigation of a 2008 complaint alleging sexual abuse of a child by a priest in the 1990s are not exempt from disclosure under the Ohio Public Records Act, and those documents must therefore be provided in redacted form to the person who filed the complaint.

In a 5-2 per curiam opinion, the Court held that, if names, places of employment and other identifying information were redacted (blacked out) from some of the requested documents, they would not fall under an exemption in the Public Records Act that bars disclosure of law enforcement investigatory records if their release would create a high probability of disclosing the identity of a suspect who was not charged with a criminal offense.

In 2008, Beth Rocker filed a report with the Guernsey County Sheriff’s Office alleging that she had been sexually assaulted in the early 1990s, when she was a child. Rocker claimed that the priest of the church she had attended as a child was the perpetrator of the crime. The sheriff’s office conducted an investigation and the county prosecutor submitted information obtained through that investigation to a grand jury. No indictment was returned. After the investigation had concluded, Rocker, through counsel, made a public-records request “for the entire contents of the investigative file and any documents reviewed during or related to the investigation.” The sheriff’s office provided Rocker with a copy of the incident report, but denied her access to the remaining investigative records.

A few months later, Rocker filed a complaint in the 5th District Court of Appeals seeking a writ of mandamus to compel the sheriff’s office to provide her with access to “all documents reviewed during, related to, or prepared concerning the criminal investigation” of the suspect. After the sheriff’s office filed a response, the court ordered the office to submit copies of all the requested records under seal for an in-camera inspection. Pursuant to the court’s order, the parties submitted briefs on whether the various categories of investigative records withheld by the sheriff’s office are disclosable under the Public Records Act, R.C. 149.43. On Dec. 2, 2009, the court of appeals denied the writ. Rocker exercised her right to appeal the 5th District’s ruling to the Supreme Court.

In today’s majority opinion, the Court wrote: “Exceptions to disclosure under the Public Records Act, R.C. 149.43, are strictly construed against the public-records custodian, and the custodian has the burden to establish the applicability of an exception. ... The sheriff’s office claimed, and the court of appeals determined, that the remaining requested records are exempt from disclosure as confidential-law enforcement investigatory records under R.C. 149.43(A)(1)(h) and (2). ... (T)he court of appeals held that the release of the investigative records would probably reveal the identity of an uncharged suspect under R.C. 149.43(A)(2)(a). The claimed perpetrator of the sexual assault is an uncharged suspect because he has never been charged with a criminal offense.”

“(T)his exception applies only to those portions of records that, if released, would create a high probability of disclosure of the suspect’s identity. We have held that records are exempt under the uncharged-suspect exception when ‘the protected identities of uncharged suspects are inextricably intertwined with the investigatory records.’ ... The court of appeals determined, in effect, that every part of the requested records was inextricably intertwined with the identity of the priest accused of sexual assault and that the records were thus not subject to disclosure under R.C. 149.43. ... We have reviewed the sealed records and conclude that some of the withheld records are subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act because they are not inextricably intertwined with the suspect’s protected identity. For most of these records, if the sheriff’s office redacts the priest’s name, the name, location, and diocese of the church he worked at, and other specific identifying information, the disclosure of the records will not create a high probability of disclosure of the priest’s identity.”

“Therefore, the court of appeals erred in concluding that all the withheld investigative records were covered by a blanket uncharged-suspect exemption. ... Based on our independent review of the sealed investigative records, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and remand the cause so that the court can review the sealed records and order the disclosure of those records following the redaction of those portions of the record that are subject to the uncharged-suspect exemption, e.g., the priest’s name, his address, the name, location, and diocese of the church he worked at, and other specific, identifying information. By so holding, we adhere to our strict construction of exceptions to the Public Records Act as well as our duty to resolve any doubt in favor of access to public records.”

The majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Eric Brown and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Maureen O’Connor, Judith Ann Lanzinger and Robert R. Cupp.

Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton entered a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justice Terrence O’Donnell. Justice Stratton wrote that in her view the majority holding weakens the uncharged suspect exception to the Public Records Act, and makes it more difficult for trial courts to determine which parts of particular records are exempt from disclosure.

She wrote: “The majority’s decision to attempt to redact the suspect’s name, address, and place and dates of employment creates a new standard that is not only onerous to trial courts but, as in this case, as a practical matter, is unworkable. The reality is that just redacting the uncharged suspect’s name, place of employment, dates he or she worked for the organization, and other specific identifying information will not prevent the high probability of disclosure of the uncharged suspect’s identity in a less populous county such as the one in this case, where the suspect involved may be the only person in the county during the time in question to have held the position of leadership he or she held and may have been employed at the only organization of its kind in that county.”

“ ... The court of appeals has already reviewed the disputed ten sealed documents and found them to be confidential law enforcement investigatory records, each of which is exempt from disclosure, concluding that release of the disputed records would ‘undoubtedly reveal the identity of the uncharged suspect.’ ... Absent an abuse of discretion, we should not second-guess these findings and substitute our own opinion for that of the lower courts.”

Konrad Kircher, 513.229.7996, for Beth Rocker.

Daniel Padden, 740.432.6322, for the Guernsey County Sheriff’s Office.

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