Custodian of Public Records has Burden to Show Why Materials are Exempt from Disclosure

The Ohio Supreme Court this morning held that the custodian of  public records has burden to show why requested material is exempt from disclosure under the state’s public records law.

Case in point was a public records request to the Ohio State Highway Patrol in 2011 seeking records related to traffic incidents involving a particular trooper, and plaintiff’s allegation that, while the Patrol had provided some of the materials requested, it didn’t release others believed to be public record. In a March 2012 letter, the Patrol confirmed that it refused to provide certain records because they were “investigatory work product” for an ongoing criminal investigation so they weren’t subject to disclosure under the public records law. Specifically, the Patrol did not release impaired-driver reports and the Patrol cruiser’s video/ audio recordings related to a traffic stop, detention, arrest, and transport of a particular person on July 15 or 16, 2011, with the Patrol holding that  “information regarding open/pending criminal cases is being withheld” because of the investigatory-work-product exception to the Public Records Act, R.C. 149.43(A)(1)(h) and (2)

The Court’s summary reported the Twelfth District Court of Appeals was petitioned for a writ of mandamus to force the release of these records and had detailed numerous problems in the case, including procedural mistakes, contradictory and unsupported claims, and a faulty timeline, but it agreed to consider his affidavit and evidence; concluding there hadn’t been  a clear legal right established, by clear and convincing evidence, to the records. [Twelfth District's holding ]

While the Supreme Court notes in today’s ruling that the evidence was incomplete and presented in a confusing way, it also states that the Patrol’s letter refusing to release some public records is clear and convincing evidence that the plaintiff  had stated a sufficient reason to be given the records and the patrol did not provide them.

“Once the patrol refused to provide the requested records, it must show that they were exempt from disclosure based on one of the public records statute’s exceptions,” the court said. “Exceptions to disclosure under the Public Records Act are strictly construed against the public-records custodian, and the custodian has the burden to establish the applicability of an exception. A custodian does not meet this burden if it has not proven that the requested records fall squarely within the exception.”

State ex rel. Miller v. Ohio State Highway Patrol, Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-3720