Private police required to release records? Ohio Supreme Court will decide

The Columbus Dispatch reports that the Ohio Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that may determine whether private police employed in places such as colleges and hospitals are subject to public records laws. The case before the court originates with Otterbein University, a private Ohio college, whose police force has refused to provide records to the student-run news website www.otterbein360.com. Student news-editor Anna Schiffbauer made repeated requests to access records kept by the police force. The Otterbein Police Department (OPD) refused to comply, arguing that they were a private police force and not subject to laws requiring disclosure of public records. Schiffbauer filed a mandamus action with the Supreme Court of Ohio in February 2014.

Schiffbauer argues that the Ohio Public Records Act (PRA) applies to the college's police force. She asserts that, "the OPD is an organized body, established by the laws of this state, which exercises a governmental function," and that, as such, it is bound by the PRA to release its public records. In support of her claims, Schiffbauer points to the fact that the police department is certified by the Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission, under the directive of the Ohio Attorney General, and that the OPD is supervised by the state. Because the OPD is performing a public function, she argues, it is required to release public records even though Otterbein pays the organization's salaries. According to the Dispatch, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine agrees with Schiffbauer's position.

In its motion to dismiss, Otterbein argues that the police force is not a public entity or the functional equivalent of a public entity, and thus is not required to release its records. Among other arguments, counsel for Otterbein asserts that providing campus security is not a governmental function reserved to the state, and that no government entity controls the daily operations of the OPD.

The Ohio Supreme Court denied Otterbein's motion to dismiss on March 11, allowing the case to proceed in the court. The date for oral arguments has not yet been set. The docket for the case is available, here.

Photo credit: Wdzinc via Wikimedia Commons.