Archive for Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Court airing of tape won’t end open-records effort

September 17, 2003

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Playing a police-dispatch recording during court Tuesday doesn't satisfy an open-records lawsuit brought against the city of Lawrence and the Lawrence Police Department by the Journal-World, the newspaper's managing editor said.

The lawsuit pending in Douglas County District Court asks a judge to find that dispatch tapes are a record of a public broadcast -- not, as city officials claim, part of a criminal-investigation record -- and that it's in the public interest to make the recordings available.

"We're pleased this information has been shared with the public," said Richard Brack, managing editor. "Having a complete understanding of how this tragedy occurred is the only way Lawrence residents can have full confidence in the police who serve and protect them."

However, Brack pointed out that police have yet to grant the newspaper access to the recording. And the department has not released a full traffic report from the collision.

"That access is required before we will be satisfied their obligation to the state's open records laws have been met," he said.

Shortly after the lawsuit's filing, the city agreed to release an "officer's special report" sought by the newspaper, but the question of whether state law requires the release of that record has yet to be settled.

Attorney Mike Merriam, the Topeka lawyer representing the newspaper in the lawsuit, said playing the recordings in court called into question the city's argument that releasing the records would harm Nam Ouk Cho's right to a fair trial. Cho, 19, of Lee's Summit, Mo., is charged with striking and killing motorist Judith Vellucci as Cho fled from police.

"I question the need to withhold it in the first place if, at the very first opportunity, they (prosecutors) disclosed it all in court," Merriam said.

He also pointed out that playing the recording in open court makes it not just a public record of a traffic violation, but evidence in court. "So the doctrine of openness in court records now applies, in addition to the open records issues already raised," Merriam said.

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