In the near-final chapter of a long-running ACLU “open records” lawsuit against the Providence Police Department, the R.I. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the City of Providence cannot charge the community group DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) for the costs of providing copies of internal police misconduct reports. The Court has also ordered the City to pay the ACLU’s volunteer lawyers their attorneys’ fees dating back to the ACLU’s inception of the litigation in 1995.
DARE first sought copies of the Police Department’s internal records of police misconduct investigations ten years ago. After the Department refused to release them, the ACLU filed suit on the community organization’s behalf. In 1998, the R.I. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling ordering the records to be turned over. However, after DARE encountered continued problems in receiving complete records, Superior Court Judge Stephen Fortunato, Jr. ordered the Police Department to turn them over without redactions of various information, and to do so at no cost to DARE. The City appealed those rulings, as well as a ruling that the City was obligated to pay attorneys’ fees to the ACLU volunteer attorneys who successfully handled the case.
In February of this year, to DARE and the ACLU’s surprise, the new city administration pursued those claims in oral arguments before the Court. However, in an 18-page opinion, the Court has rejected them. Instead, the Court held that the City could not require DARE to pay for the costs incurred by the police department in retrieving the records sought, and further ruled that the open records law authorized an award of attorneys’ fees to DARE as the prevailing plaintiff in the lawsuit. The only issue left unresolved is the amount of attorneys’ fees to be awarded.
R.I. ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today: “We are extremely pleased with the Court’s comprehensive decision that should, at long last, soon bring to a close this protracted litigation. The City of Providence engaged in an incredibly obstructionist ten-year effort in this case: first by denying DARE access to these records, then by delaying access to them, and then, most galling of all, by trying to force DARE to pay for handing them over. The Court’s ruling marks the end of a very sad chapter in the Providence Police Department’s history of arrogance towards those who would seek to monitor its conduct.” Added DARE representative Mary Kay Harris: “I am very happy with the outcome of the case, but it is a shame that it had to take so long for us to get to this point.”