From a Utah Headliners Chapter press release:
Allison Barlow Hess: 801-698-1387 email@example.com
Con Psarras: 801-575-5505, firstname.lastname@example.org
David Reymann: 801-532-7840; email@example.com
Court Rules for Television Station in Police Records Case
A Seventh District Court judge has ruled that mug shots of a man and woman booked into the San Juan County Jail are public records under Utah’s open records statute and should have been released when KSL-TV requested the photographs in connection with a news story in 2007.
The ruling by Judge Douglas B. Thomas in the case of KSL TV vs. San Juan County is a clear affirmation of the responsibility of government agencies to carefully weigh requests for information under Utah Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), which favors public access to government records.
“The court’s ruling is a victory for the public’s right to know and for the bedrock principle that the public’s business should be conducted in public,” said David Reymann, the attorney who represented KSL in the case. “The rights safeguarded by Utah’s open records laws are important, and the court made clear that government agencies need to take them seriously when they receive records requests,” Reymann said.
In his ruling, Judge Thomas held that the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office acted unlawfully in denying KSL’s request for jail booking photographs of a man and a woman convicted of two different crimes against a juvenile victim. The judge said the County’s improper decision to withhold the photographs was possibly influenced by “how that record might be used in the publication of a story.” The judge said the notion that public records would be withheld because an agency may not like the nature of news coverage is “very troubling….to the point that it does, in fact, go to censorship.”
The San Juan County Sheriff’s office was ordered to hand over the jail photos to KSL following the May 8 hearing in Monticello in which the judge delivered an oral ruling.
“It is not KSL’s present intention to publish the photographs, in that the news value of the of the original case has long passed,“ said Con Psarras, KSL Vice President for News. “We pursued this lawsuit as a matter of principle, to defend the right of public access to information regarding crimes in our communities and the activities of law enforcement agencies. Our decision to challenge the denial of our request was also influenced by a recent and disturbing trend among some police agencies to stall or obstruct disclosure of basic public information ,” Psarras added.
Judge Thomas ruled, “That for the good and protection of the community the public is entitled to know those individuals who have committed crimes against minors – committed any crimes, but in this particular case especially against a minor.”
San Juan County had argued that the mug shots should be deemed private because public disclosure of the photographs would constitute an “invasion of privacy” of the convicted individuals. The court rejected this argument, ruling that, “ In this instance, the court cannot find why the publication or release of a record of someone who has been convicted of a crime is a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
The Judge also affirmed the fundamental principle of GRAMA that records are presumed to be public, and that an agency’s categorical classification of records in advance is of little or no relevance once an agency receives a request for a specific record under GRAMA. He ruled that each request for public records must be weighed individually, neutrally, and with a presumption in favor of access.
“The Utah Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists commends KSL for its diligence in pursuing this lengthy challenge. KSL was able use its resources on behalf of all the citizens of the state of Utah,” said Allison Barlow Hess the President of the Utah Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “The judge’s ruling reminds record holders that mug shots are public records and must be made available to anyone who seeks them without any need to justify or clarify their intended use.”
Citing a Utah Supreme Court case involving the classification of public records, Judge Thomas said: “The Court also made it very clear, and I want to make this clear as well, that a tie between the competing interests goes to releasing the record; it does not go to keeping it private.”