Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Clarifies What Criminal Complaint Information Police Must Make Available

A nearly 30-year-old standard on what police must make available to the public when a crime is reported has been clarified by the Supreme Court of Ohio today.

In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that certain information documented by law enforcement officers, including observations of officers responding to an incident and initial witness statements, are public records and must be revealed when requested.

In a dispute between the Chillicothe Police Department and the editor of the Scioto Valley Guardian, the Court clarified the public records act definition of “specific investigatory work product,” a category of records that are exempt from disclosure as public records. In a per curiam opinion, the Court ruled the department improperly delayed the release of police incident reports and must pay the publication $1,800 and court costs.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner joined the majority opinion. Justice Patrick F. Fischer concurred in the Court’s judgment regarding the release of records, but dissented in the awarding of damages and court costs to the Guardian.

In a partly concurring and partly dissenting opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote the that majority “needlessly complicates a standard that was settled almost 30 years ago” in the Court’s 1994 State ex rel. Steckman v. Jackson decision. Changes to what constitutes specific investigatory work product “will certainly cause confusion and spur litigation for years to come,” she concluded.

Justice R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion.

Delayed Incident Report Delivery Prompts Media’s Lawsuit
Derek Myers, editor of the Scioto Valley Guardian news website, requested an incident report relating to a particular investigation. Myers then sent an email to Chillicothe Police Chief Ron Meyers in November 2020 expressing dismay with the department’s refusal to release police incident reports that, it said, involved open investigations.

About two weeks later, Myers sought a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court to direct the police department to release the incident report he requested. A week after that, the police chief formally denied the public records request, stating the information was a “confidential law-enforcement investigatory record” and specifically, under R.C. 149.43(A)(2)(c), that it was exempt from the definition of a public record as “specific investigatory work product.”

As the matter was pending, Myers submitted to the Chillicothe police eight more public records requests for incident reports, which were also denied. He sought a second writ from the Court in February 2021 for those records. The Court considered all nine record requests in today’s opinion.

Police Chief Explained Records Policy
In a sworn statement, the police chief explained the records that the department generates after receiving a complaint of a crime, and how it handles public records requests.

For each complaint, the department develops an investigatory record, which has three components. First, the department uses a standard “fill-in-the-blank” report that identifies the date, location, and offense information, as well as other basic information that is filled in by the investigating officer. Second, the form includes an “initial narrative” section, in which the officers may identify the alleged offense, the location of the incident, and whether the investigation is ongoing.

The chief described the third section as “supplemental narratives,” which contain the personal notes of the investigating officer regarding the incident, summarize witness and victim interviews, and evaluates the alleged offense. The chief stated the narratives contain specific details of the crime and the identities of the victims, witnesses, and the alleged perpetrator.

When responding to a public records request, the department discloses the fill-in-the-blank incident form and the initial narrative. However, as long as the investigation into the case is open, the department considers the supplemental narratives as exempt from the public records act as the investigating officer’s work product. Once an investigation is closed, the entire investigatory record, including the supplemental narratives, becomes a public record, the police chief said.

Process Violated Records Act, Editor Asserted
The delayed responses to the Guardian violated the public records act and the department’s own policy, the editor maintained. The department did not provide the incident report and narrative of the November 2020 report until January 2021, more than a month after the publication sought a writ from the Court. Myers contended that at the time, the supplemental narratives should have been released as well, and the department cannot completely withhold the records until the investigation is over.

In response to the second request for eight more records, the department released three incident reports before Myers filed his second writ. He received five reports two days after his second lawsuit was filed. In four of his nine requests, the department listed the cases as closed and provided Myers with the full record, including the supplemental narratives.

Supreme Court Analyzed Records Release
The per curiam opinion noted that in the 1994 Steckman decision, the Court found “offense and incident reports” are not specific investigatory work product, and a police department must release them as public records. The department should have promptly released the incident reports to Myers, the Court ruled.

The Court examined the supplemental narratives, which were attached to the incident report forms. The Court wrote the most important factor in determining whether these narratives are part of an incident report is “timing,” including the initial observations by the officers and initial witness statements taken at the physical location close to the time the incident occurred.

The Court found some of the information in the withheld supplemental narratives was derived from reports by witnesses and others involved at the time of the incident. In some cases, the officer would write one or two words in the initial narrative, and then within minutes provide more detailed information in the supplemental narratives, the Court noted. In other cases, the supplemental narratives were produced days, or weeks, later as the investigation continued, the opinion stated.

The Court clarified not all the details gathered at the incident scene must be released when the incident report is completed. Law enforcement is still entitled to redact information that is not considered public record. The opinion noted that state law contains several provisions that exempt information from disclosure, and any information in an incident report or narrative that qualifies for exemption can be removed from the public records report.

After examining the supplemental narratives, the Court ordered some, but not all, of the reports requested by Myers to be released.

Report Timing Should Not Determine Record Status, Opinion Maintained
Justice Kennedy noted that she concurred with the majority’s decision that the department owed $1,800 in damages for not releasing the initial incident reports. However, the timing of when information was recorded and the method in which Chillicothe maintains its police records should not dictate whether they are confidential law enforcement investigatory records, she wrote.

Her opinion noted that the Court in Steckman defined what constitutes “work product” under the public records exemption for specific investigatory work product. “Work product” was defined as “information assembled by law enforcement officials in connection with a probable or pending criminal proceeding.”

The work-product rule applies to information gathered once it is evident a crime occurred, the opinion noted, and those materials compiled in anticipation of litigation are exempt under the Steckman definition. Prior to today’s decision, law enforcement could rely on the Steckman decision to know that incident reports needed to be released, and that other records of an ongoing investigation did not, the opinion stated.

Now the departments will have to consider when information was collected and how it is maintained, which will be confusing, the opinion stated. Justice Kennedy wrote that the current rule is readily understandable, and the Court “should not fix what is not broken.”

2020-1469 and 2021-0211. State ex re. Myers v. Meyers, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-1915.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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