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Access to Public Records Act should bring relief in Providence Journal Freedom of Information Suit against state police, Department of Public Safety commissioner

By Sarah Griffis, Suffolk University Law School student and president of the Suffolk Media Law Group 
On June 20, 2012, a police report involving a heavily intoxicated 18-year-old woman was leaked to WPRO-AM, and on June 21, the Providence Journal attempted to get its own copy by emailing a request to state police for “all records relating to Caleb Chafee and the investigation which arose from  occurrences at his home on May 28, 2012″ (Complaint, 3).

     According to an article in the Providence Journal by Katie Mulvaney, “The state police denied three requests, arguing the records were exempt because Caleb Chafee was not arrested and that the case was civil, not criminal.” The Providence Journal filed a lawsuit on Oct. 22 alleging that Department of Public Safety attorney Danica Iacoi denied the newspaper’s request two times, after which on appeal Department of Public Safety Commissioner Colonel Steven G. O’Donnell also denied the Journal’s request for documents concerning the illegal drinking party (3-4).
     Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act seeks to strike a balance between facilitating “public access to public records” and preventing “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” It defines public records as “all documents… made or received pursuant to law,” with some limitations placed on criminal law enforcement records to safeguard due process and privacy concerns. Presumably the denial based on the civil nature of Chafee’s case does not protect the documents unless it is considered an unwarranted invasion of privacy to access the police report of a civil case. The Providence Journal argues that the public’s interest in this case is compelling, and therefore documents relating to the May 28 investigation should be turned over.
     Under the public records law, the burden of proof is on the public agencies to show that the police report was in fact properly withheld from the newspaper. Also, cases adjudicated in Rhode Island profess a strong preference for construing restricting language on freedom of information narrowly so as to privilege public access (In re Derderian, In re New England Gas Co.). The Department of Public Safety and state police may find their reasoning for turning down the request does not defeat the strong public policy emphasized by the Access to Public Records Act. The Providence Journal may win this battle to inform the public of underage drinking parties and hosts’ duties when it comes to highly intoxicated minors.

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