Rhode Island Supreme Court Orders City to Pay Costs in Police Misconduct Open Records Case

April 21, 2003 12:00 am

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ACLU of Rhode Island
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PROVIDENCE, RI — In the near-final chapter of a long-running “open records” lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the police department here, the State Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that city cannot charge a community group for the costs of providing copies of internal police misconduct reports.

“We are extremely pleased with the court’s comprehensive decision that should, at long last, soon bring to a close this protracted litigation,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “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.”

Today’s decision resolves part of the long running lawsuit, DARE v. Gannon, filed by the ACLU on behalf of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE). The court has also ordered the city to pay the ACLU’s volunteer lawyers their attorneys’ fees dating back to the lawsuit’s inception.

According to Brown, Providence city officials “engaged in an incredibly obstructionist 10-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.”

DARE, a community-based organization that monitors law enforcement and assists in filing civilian complaints, first sought copies of the police department’s internal records of police misconduct investigations 10 years ago. After the department refused to release the records, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on the community organization’s behalf.

In 1998, the Rhode Island 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 over the documents without blocking out 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, a new city administration pursued those claims in oral arguments before the court. In today’s 18-page opinion, however, the court rejected those claims and instead held that the city could not require DARE to pay for the costs incurred by the police department in retrieving the records. The court 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.

“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,” said Mary Kay Harris, a representative with DARE.

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