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Archive for Saturday, July 31, 2004

Judge rules against newspaper in open records lawsuit

July 31, 2004

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A Douglas County judge ruled Friday it was legal for Lawrence police to withhold dispatch recordings from the public after a deadly high-speed pursuit last summer, but an attorney questioned the decision, saying it failed to address the key issue.

Judge Paula Martin ruled against the Lawrence Journal-World, which sued the city and county, arguing dispatch recordings from a deadly Aug. 26, 2003, police pursuit should be open to the public under the Kansas Open Records Act. But Martin found the recordings could be kept secret because they were part of a "criminal investigation record" that recorded officers chasing driver Nam Ouk Cho across the city.

The open records act is the state law intended to ensure public agencies conduct their business in public.

Cho is charged with second-degree murder in the death of 56-year-old Judith Vellucci in a crash at 31st Street and Nieder Road. Cho's trial is scheduled for Aug. 11.

The newspaper sought access to the recordings after the chase, filing suit after police turned down open-records requests. The city eventually released the recording, but only after it was played weeks later in open court.

Under state law, even if a document is found to be a "criminal investigation record," a judge can order it open if he or she finds it's "in the public interest." The newspaper had asked Martin to make that finding in light of a nationwide controversy about whether police pursuits should be restricted because of cases like Cho's.

But because police had released the tape by the time Martin made her decision, she found that issue was moot.

"That conclusion that the issue is moot is not correct," said Mike Merriam, the Topeka attorney representing the newspaper. "If you take the position that Judge Martin takes, we just never can determine the nature of the documents."

Merriam said he had dealt with a similar pattern in other cases across the state.

"We have to file a lawsuit to get an open record. After they get sued, they give us the open record and claim that the lawsuit is moot," Merriam said.

Journal-World Managing Editor Richard Brack said he was disappointed the judge chose not to address whether the public should be given access to information about how its police force works, and that the newspaper was considering its next step.

"Can the public have confidence in a police force that operates in secret?" Brack said. "This newspaper takes seriously its responsibility to inform the public, and will continue its fight to meet that responsibility."

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