U.S. Supreme Court: States can withhold documents from nonresidents

29 04 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision announced Monday, stated that there is no constitutional right for people to obtain public records from states they don’t live in.

According to the Reporters’ Commitee for Freedom of the Press, the high court upheld a provision in Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act that states non-residents cannot file records requests.

“This Court has repeatedly made clear that there is no constitutional right to obtain all the information provided by FOIA laws,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court.

The suit was brought by Mark J. McBurney and Roger W. Hurlbert. McBurney, a former Virginia resident who moved to Rhode Island, attempted to obtain information on child-support payments from his ex-wife. Hurlbert, a California businessman, was seeking property-tax records for his business.

The pair are planning to lobby Virginia to repeal the residents-only clause in its records act.

The Society of Professional Journalists and other open-government groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the pair’s lawsuit.

Wyoming lawmakers want to shroud university president selection process in secrecy

1 02 2013

Just in case you were wondering, Utah’s legislators don’t hold a monopoly on attempts to close off public records.

The Student Press Law Center reports that Wyoming lawmakers are trying to nullify a court ruling that declared documents identifying finalists for the University of Wyoming president should be made public.

The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Casper Star-Tribune and the Associated Press filed suit seeking to get  documents that would reveal who was being seriously considered for the post. A week ago, a state judge ruled that the records were public, and should be released to reporters.

The following day, Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, introduced HB223, which makes information on candidates for university and college presidencies private records. As of Friday, the bill has passed the Wyoming House of Representatives and has advanced to the Senate.

Chad Baldwin, the University of Wyoming’s spokesman, told the Student Press Law Center that releasing the names of finalists may cause some candidates to back out. He claimed that in the wake of the judge’s ruling, four of the eight semifinalists for the post withdrew.

But open-government advocates argue that releasing the names allows the public to comment on the candidates, providing the university’s board of trustees with information that it might not otherwise get.

“The public is really interested in that particular university,” Star-Tribune editor Darrell Ehrlick told the law center. “There are not the divided loyalties that there may be in other states.”

In Utah, the names of finalists for university presidents, as well as school superintendents, city managers and similar positions are released to the public. That practice came in the wake of a 1996 4th District Court ruling that Orem officials could not withhold the names of finalists for the city manager’s post.


Documents show Hurricane’s payment for Taser death, but still scant details of settlement

15 01 2013

Thanks to Utah’s open-records law, we now know how much a Hurricane police officer’s decision to use a Taser on a mentally ill man cost taxpayers.

As Brooke Adams reported, the southern Utah city paid the family of Brian Cardall $2 million to settle the family’s wrongful-death lawsuit against the city. The settlement states that the city does not admit to any liability by making the payment.

In return, the Cardalls drop their suit against the city, Police Chief Lynn Excell and Officer Kenneth Thompson, who is accused of firing two 50,000-volt charges from his Taser pistol into Cardall, who was unarmed, naked and having a bipolar episode on the side of a southern Utah highway on June 9, 2009.

However, if you’re looking for more details as to whether Thompson was disciplined or if he and his colleagues had to undergo training in dealing with people who are mentally ill or the proper use of “non-lethal” weapons, forget about it. Adams reports that the settlement precludes the parties from discussing any details, only acknowledging that the case was resolved.

The settlement does permit Cardall’s family, including his father, former KSL-TV editorial director Duane Cardall, to continue working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and police departments on how to help people with mental illness.


Settlement between Brian Cardall’s family, Hurricane police confidential

2 01 2013

Attorney Peter Stirba said the wrongful death lawsuit filed against Hurricane in the death of Brian Cardall has been settled in the best interest of all parties.

The problem is, the public is forced to take Stirba’s word for it. Stirba, who represented the city, Police Chief Lynn Excell and Officer Kenneth Thompson, said the details of the settlement were confidential.

Cardall’s family sued the city, Excell and Thompson, who delivered two shocks from a Taser pistol to Cardall when he was having a bipolar episode on the side of a southern Utah highway in 2009. Cardall died shortly after the second shock was delivered and, Cardall’s family alleges, failed to provide medical treatment when he stopped breathing.

The public, who will foot the bill for the settlement, is in the dark. And that concerns at least one open-government advocate.

“There’s no doubt that the details of the settlement are of public interest,” said Linda Petersen, chairwoman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ national Freedom of Information Committee. “Obviously in the case of wrongful Tasering, the public has a huge interest in knowing what its police force is doing. ”

Petersen, who is also executive director of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, also questioned how a public entity could keep a lawsuit settlement away from the public. Normally, legal agreements involving cities and towns are public record.

Along with not knowing about how much money the city paid to settle the Cardalls’ claims, the public also doesn’t know if the city is taking any steps to ensure the episode is not repeated, such as training officers in dealing with mentally ill people or proper use of Taser pistols.

In the wake of Cardall’s death, the Utah State Legislature passed a resolution encouraging police departments to provide officers with better training in how to respond to people with mental illness. But resolutions do not carry the full weight of a law, and there’s a difference between encouraging and mandating that someone do something.

Do you think the settlement should be made public as a matter of accountability?