Private college police forces must release records, Supreme Court rules

From The Columbus Dispatch

Police departments at private colleges and universities are required to release their records to the public, a divided Ohio Supreme Court ruled today in a case involving Otterbein University.

By a 4-3 vote, the court majority found that since private college police forces are a creation of state law and perform an historically government function, they are required to comply with Ohio public records law.

The ruling came in a case filed by a former Otterbein University student journalist after she was unable to obtain police records from the Westerville school, which maintained it was not required to comply because it was a non-public entity.

In an unsigned opinion, the majority said that Otterbein police “exercises a public function of government, namely the basic police power of enforcing laws and maintaining the peace ...

“Its officers therefore have the power to search and confiscate property, to detain, search and arrest persons and to carry deadly weapons” as an agency that exists only because it is authorized by state law, the opinion said.

Private campus police forces are therefore a public office for purposes of the public records act and must release incident and arrest reports and other records that also must be released by public police agencies, the court said.

Otterbein spokeswoman Jenny Hill said the school's police force now will turn over records requested by student journalists. "We believe the split decision clearly establishes a new precedent related to private university police departments throughout Ohio," she said.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfefier, Judith Ann Lanzinger and Judith L. French formed the court majority in the ruling.

Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy and William M. O’Neill dissented.

In his dissenting opinion, O’Donnell accused his colleagues or rewriting the law in arguing private universities – not the state – create their police forces and they are not public offices.

The court did not address whether the ruling applies to similar private police forces operated by hospitals and others.

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