Lawsuit by Scoop Media Group challenges redaction of victim names

Update: Scoop Media won its public records case in August 2020. Montgomery County Chancellor Laurence M. McMillan ruled that T.C.A. § 4-38-111(i) does not make confidential the names and address of alleged victims of criminal conduct found in warrants and affidavits of complaints, but rather applies to identifying information about a victim obtained when the person requests notifications regarding the status of criminal proceedings. He ordered Montgomery County to stop redacting the information. However, he denied attorney’s fees to Scoop Media because the Office of Open Records Counsel had advised Montgomery County that the confidentiality provision would “probably apply to domestic violence situations where an officer responds to a scene” and gets information from the victim.

Read the chancellor’s ruling.

Original story:

Scoop Media Group LLC and its CEO Jason Steen is challenging a practice of redacting victim names and sometimes the location of a crime from affidavits of complaints.

It filed a lawsuit Feb. 13 against Montgomery County, claiming that the county is violating the Tennessee Public Records Act and maintaining that the records are judicial records which are presumptively open.

“This is record made, under oath, before a judicial magistrate or other competent government official by one person accusing another of a crime,” the lawsuit says. “For decades, these quintessential public records have been available to citizens of the Tennessee consistent with the Tennessee Constitution’s command that the courts of our state be open.”

The lawsuit states that Scoop Media on a daily basis requests and receives affidavits of complaints from other county clerks in Tennessee. Those affidavits do not have the names of complainants of crimes redacted unless they involve certain sexual offenses or the names of minors. There are provisions in statute that allow for such redactions.

Montgomery County, however, claimed that it began redacting names of complainants in affidavits because it believes that the Victims’ Bill of Rights [T.C.A. § 40-38-111(i)] make identifying information about victims confidential even when it is in a public record.

Here is T.C.A. § 40-38-111(i):

(1) Any identifying information concerning a crime victim obtained pursuant to this section shall be confidential.

(2) For purposes of subdivision (i)(1), “identifying information” means the name, home and work addresses, telephone numbers and social security number.

The lawsuit argues that the “plain language of sub-section (i), especially when understood in the context of the statute as a whole, makes clear that it is only this sort of identifying information “obtained pursuant to this section” — i.e. identifying information obtained for the purpose of providing crime victims notice of rights and proceedings — that is confidential.”

The attorneys representing Scoop Media are J. Alex Little and Zachary Lawson.

What do you think?