Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What The Blade didn't tell its readers about their 'gang map' public records lawsuit

Ohio's Sixth District Court of Appeals
Yesterday I wrote an explanation of why the Toledo Police Department's 'gang map' is NOT a public record, despite what the Toledo Blade wrote in their editorial signed by John Robinson Block.

One of the things the paper said was that they were engaged in a legal battle over the issue. Ohio allows individuals (and media) to file a request for mandamus with a court to force the release of public records.

Interestingly, the Blade didn't explain any details of the lawsuit, so I decided to look it up.

Case number CL-2012-01183 was filed with the Sixth District Court of Apeals on July 11, 2012.

Here's a summary of the mandamus request:

* Reporter Taylor Dungien was told on three occasions that TPD maintains a gang map or "gang territories map" on a wall and electronically in the computer.

* She asked to view the map.

* Sgt. Heffernan, the individual responsible for handling public records requests, told her no because it is an "intelligence piece and we're using it to do our enforcement; it's actively being used."

* She made another request and the city's law director told her it was exempt from Ohio's public records law because it was a confidential law enforcement investigatory record.

(this is exactly the point I made in my post yesterday)

* The Blade maintains that it is a public record because it's a "compilation based on ongoing monitoring of of gang activity in the city" (yes, a lot of typos in the filing...) Accordingly, they claim, it can't be a 'investigatory' record.

* They claim the release of the map will not endanger an officer, victim, witness or informant - nor will it disclose the identity of a suspect.

* They also claim it won't reveal any "specific confidential investigatory techniques or specific investigatory work product."

(Interestingly, this claim that it isn't a work product directly contradicts their story about how long it took them to create their own map and how hard it was to do so, considering the lack of openness the gangs displayed.)

* They also claim that if portions of the map are exempt, the map should be redacted to give them the portions that aren't.

* They finally make the normal arguments that it's in the public interest and request compensation under the public records law.

The Court ordered the city to either release the map or show cause why they didn't have to.

Not surprisingly, the City responded and denied the Blade's claims, stating their original position that the map is exempt. They did admit to not offering a redacted version because it was "not capable of being redacted without becoming completely meaningless."

They also state that, to the point there is a public interest in the map, the "interest favors the effective pursuit of criminal investigations without interference" from the Blade.

The case followed the normal rules of Civil Procedure so after the initial filings, the discovery process would begin. However, on Sept. 20, the paper and the city filed a joint request for a pre-hearing conference because they couldn't agree upon discovery issues.

The court agreed to have them submit the issue - and their respective positions on the issue - to the court. This is where it gets interesting....

The Blade proposed that their attorney be allowed to view the map in confidence, agreeing not to reveal anything of it to the paper, so he could understand the legal basis for the refusal to release it. The city said no. Depositions began.

The paper again requested that the attorney be allowed to view the map under a protective order. The city again said no.

But as the deposition proceeded, the Blade attorney again asked to see it and promised not to reveal any part of it to his client. The city again refused and they agreed to go to the court for resolution of this dispute.

To recap: Having failed to get the map released, the Blade's attorney asked to view it and promised not to tell the paper anything about it. The city, maintained it was not a public record but a confidential record and not subject to discovery. And who could blame them?

You can't insist that an item be revealed in discovery when the item is the very subject of the mandamus action. But the city agreed that the court (judge) could view the document under seal and that they would make it available to the court.

Three judges signed the decision that said the law provided for no "hybrid" form of disclosure that would allow "attorneys eyes only" for the viewing of the map. The judges ruled that either the map was a public record subject to release and viewable by all, or it wasn't. They agreed with the city's position that the court should view the document, consistent with case law. That was December of 2012.

Following extensions of time and depositions, the Blade asked for a summary judgment in their favor, the reasons they believed they proved the record was a public one and asked for the order to release the map.

The city filed their request for summary judgment in their favor, setting out further arguments that supported their position that the map was a confidential law enforcement investigatory record (CLEIR). They also provided a copy of the map to the court.

Following that, the city filed a response objecting to the paper's request for summary judgment. In that response, they reveal various items of information from the deposition: that the map has been actively used as part of criminal investigations and some court cases are pending; the map was compiled for a specific investigatory purpose, but has since been maintained as an investigatory tool and nothing in Ohio law says a CLEIR can only be used once; revealing the map would tip off gangs and reveal the scope of TPD's knowledge about them; and (I love this one) that what other cities do with their crime maps has no relevance whatsoever to what Toledo is doing with theirs.

In accordance with the rules of civil procedure, the paper filed their objection to the city's motion for summary judgment. They claim that the map doesn't show specific crimes, just geography; it doesn't reveal specific techniques, just boundaries; release of the map wouldn't disclose specific houses or locations of suspected gang activity; that the law favors disclosure and that the burden of proof limiting disclosure lies on the part of the city; it doesn't relate to a "specific" investigation and doesn't reveal any specific technique, both of which are required in order to maintain an exemption under the law.

Those objections to the summary judgment were filed on April 18th.

Now it is up to the court to read the positions and arguments and make their decision.


Unknown said...

I just can't agree with your conclusion, Mags. The information collected about crime and criminals is public. The police department has to give that up. If the map is somehow restricted, then the information used to assemble the map is not. Otherwise, any crime information becomes restricted... which is a logical contradiction.

If the map contains names of snitches, the police can just redact that. Stuff like that. But the rest is our information, us being the public. And we have a right to it.

Maggie said...

I agree that information on crime and criminals (once charged) is public.

Your error is in assuming that the information used to create the map is all public.

It may or may not be.

It could easily contain public information but could also contain information gathered during investigations (some of which are still on-going), information obtained from confidential sources, or other information specifically excluded under Ohio law.

Additionally, HOW the map is created could be a confidential work product, which is also excluded under Ohio public records law.

So while the names of snitches may or may not be on the map, the rest of the information is not necessarily 'our' information.

Accordingly, we don't have a right to information that is excluded from the public records under Ohio law.

I'm curious as to why you think it's a public record. Why do you believe it does not fall under the exemption as a CLEIR and/or a confidential work product?

This post was to present both arguments made by the opposing sides. While I agree with the city that it is a CLEIR and a confidential work product and should not be released, your opinion on it - and mine - are significantly less important than what the court decides.

Until the court makes their decision, I'll agree to disagree with you, unless you'd like to respond to my earlier question and are able to convince me otherwise. :)

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