By Sarah Griffis

On June 20th, 2012 the police report investigating the source of a heavily intoxicated 18 year old woman was leaked to WPRO, and on June 21st, the Providence Journal attempted to get their own copy by emailing a written request for “all records relating to Caleb Chafee and the investigation which arose from  occurrences at his home on May 28, 2012” (Complaint, 3). According to the article from this week announcing Providence Journal’s lawsuit against the State Police and DPS Commissioner Colonel Steven G. O’Donnell, Katie Mulvaney at the Providence Journal writes, ” The state police denied three requests, arguing the records were exempt because Caleb Chafee was not arrested and that the case was civil, not criminal”. The complaint filed on October 22nd alleges that Department of Public Safety attorney, Danica Iacoi,  denied their request 2 times, after which on appeal Colonel O’Donnel also denied ProJo’s request for documents concerning the illegal drinking party (3-4).

R.I.G.L. §38-2 covers Access to Public Records, and seeks to strike a balance between facilitating “public access to public records” and preventing “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” (Purpose). R.I.G.L. § 38-2-2 (5) (D) defines public record as “all documents… made or received pursuant to law”, with some limitations placed on criminal law enforcement records to safeguard due process and privacy concerns. Presumably the denial based on the civil nature of Chafee’s case does not protect the documents unless it is considered an unwarranted invasion of privacy to access the police report of a civil case. Providence Journal argues that the public’s interest in this case is compelling, and therefore documents relating to the May 28 investigation must be turned over.

Under R.I.G.L § 38-2-10, the burden of proof is on the public departments to show that the police report was in fact properly withheld from the news agency. Also, cases adjudicated in RI profess a strong preference for construing restricting language on freedom of information narrowly so as to privilege public access (In re Derderian, In re New England Gas Co.). The DPS and State Police may find their reasoning for turning down the request does not defeat the strong public policy emphasized by APRA. Providence Journal may win this battle to inform the public of underage drinking parties and hosts’ duties when it comes to highly intoxicated minors.

Image taken by flickr user NS Newsflash, licensed via Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)