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ACLU Sues North Smithfield Police for Refusing to Release Arrest Report

Posted: December 04, 2008|Category: Open Government Category: Police Practices

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In the latest example of a police department choosing to ignore its clear legal responsibilities to release public documents, the Rhode Island ACLU has today filed an open records lawsuit against the North Smithfield Police for refusing to turn over an arrest report to a community activist.

The lawsuit, filed in RI Superior Court by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Gary Berkowitz, is on behalf of Gregory Pehrson, the executive director of Fuerza Laboral, an organization based in Central Falls that promotes workers’ rights. Last month, Pehrson went to the police department to obtain the copy of an arrest report for a person who was the passenger in a car pulled over by a North Smithfield police officer. The passenger was charged with purportedly providing fictitious identification to the officer. In direct defiance of the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA), the dispatcher on duty told Pehrson that he could not obtain a copy of the arrest report until the criminal charges against the person were resolved.

The next day, November 12th, the RI ACLU faxed a letter to police chief Steven Reynolds pointing out that APRA explicitly states that initial arrest reports are public records. The letter called it “quite disconcerting to hear that an officer in your department would be providing members of the public blatantly inaccurate information about their right to obtain copies of these records.” The ACLU never received a response to the letter.

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring release of the arrest report, an award of $1,000 in damages as well as costs and attorneys’ fees.

A policy report issued by the Rhode Island ACLU last year on open records law compliance in the state noted the “long-standing source of frustration for open government advocates that police departments in particular seem all-too-eager to simply ignore the commands of the Access to Public Records Act.” RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today that “this latest incident is a perfect example of how, when it comes to open records, law enforcement officials seem very content to break the law.” A bill to strengthen various aspects of the open records law was passed by the General Assembly this year, only to be vetoed by the Governor. ACLU attorney Berkowitz said today: “I am hopeful that our lawsuit will speedily reeducate the police on their legal obligation to provide information like this to the public in a timely manner.”

UPDATE: A day after the suit was filed, the defendants turned over the requested documents.

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