Tennessee Supreme Court says police records in active cases may be withheld from the public

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled today that any record that is part of an active police department’s criminal investigation may be withheld under the state’s public records laws.

Justice Sharon Lee

Justice Sharon Lee

The opinion written by Chief Justice Sharon G. Lee gave only brief nod to the media’s role in reporting about crime and law enforcement. Instead, she said the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, which are written by the Tennessee Supreme Court, govern access to police files until a criminal case is over and all appeals are exhausted.

“The media plays an important and necessary role in holding government officials accountable. Yet, the General Assembly has rightly recognized that there must be exceptions to the public’s right to obtain government records and, in doing so, has provided that the media’s role must yield to the need to protect the rights of defendants accused of crimes and the integrity of the criminal justice system during the pendency of criminal cases and any collateral challenges to criminal convictions. Under the facts of this case, Rule 16 (of the Rules of Criminal Procedure) governs the disclosure of information, and only the defendants, not the public, may receive information contained in the police investigative files.”

The ruling settles a case brought by a coalition of media organizations and others, led by The Tennessean, that sought access to police records from the Metro Nashville Police Department in the case of an alleged rape of a woman in a Vanderbilt University dorm room.

Justice Gary R. Wade dissented. Wade retired from the bench but was among the justices who heard the case last summer. Wade said the Court departed from its principles of refraining from creating public policy exceptions to the Tennessee Public Records Act when it concluded that all police records are exempt from public disclosure. He said the Rules of Criminal Procedure only exempted work product and witness statements, and was silent about dissemination of other police information to the public. 

“Because Rule 16(a)(2) does not address whether discovery material may be disseminated to the public, the central premise of the majority’s holding — that the rule prohibits the public disclosure of discovery materials — is flawed,” Wade wrote.

“Although this is a valid policy concern, our previous holdings preclude courts from creating public policy exceptions to the (Tennessee Public Records Act) — a prerogative within the exclusive authority of the General Assembly,” wrote Wade. “…While I understand my colleagues’ desire to ‘protect the integrity of the criminal justice system,’ that policy objective does not justify deviating from the plain language of the rule.”

Wade also said in his dissent that he believed that the victim of the alleged rape, who had intervened in the case, was “entitled to adjudication of her claim that public disclosure of the police records would violate her statutory and constitutional rights.” The victim had argued that rights outlined in the Tennessee Constitution and statute entitled her to “(b)e treated with dignity and compassion.”

The majority opinion said that the victim was adequately protected in the case through an exemption passed in the Legislature two years ago that makes confidential a sexual assault victim’s private information following a guilty plea, conviction or sentencing.

Justice Holly Kirby in a concurring opinion mocked Wade’s dissent, particularly his interpretation of the Court’s decision about Rule 16, saying the only justification “for its extreme position is purported deference to the legislature.”

“One of this Court’s foremost obligations is to preserve and protect the integrity of our State’s criminal justice system. The dissent in this case advocates a position that would amount to an abdication of this responsibility and would undermine the justice system we are charged to protect,” Kirby wrote.

Read: Supreme Court’s opinion in The Tennessean et al. v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County et al.

Read: Gary Wade dissenting.

Read: Holly Kirby concurring.

Note: Tennessee Coalition for Open Government was among the plaintiffs in the case. Other plaintiffs, in addition to The Tennessean, included The Associated Press, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Knoxville News Sentinel, Tennessee Associated Press Broadcasters, WXTV Fox 17, WBIR-TV Channel Ten, WTVF-TV Channel Five, The Commercial Appeal and WSMV-TV Channel Four. The Tennessee Press Association and the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters joined the case as amici.

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