It is hard to think of many other government records that, if withheld, could pose a greater danger to the public or permit a greater injustice. The public has a necessary interest in being able to examine police investigation files, which has led to the exoneration of the wrongly convicted and could identify the true perpetrators to protect future victims.
But the city’s police division maintains that, for anyone to obtain these crucial case files, the person convicted must be dead or finished serving his sentence — life, for many.
“You can’t have a fair justice system if the people going through it have to be dead to gain access to records to make sure it’s working,” Columbus lawyer Fred Gittes previously noted.
In arguments before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, Gittes said that Columbus had provided full records disclosure up until 2010. “Suddenly a steel door came down,” he told the justices, “… and now we can’t get any information out of Columbus.”
Columbus police argue that a 2000 Cleveland appeals court decision forbids the release of records as long as defendants might ever file an appeal. Gittes argues this no longer applies following a 2010 change in criminal-discovery rules that expands access to documents held by police and prosecutors.
Withholding the case file to avoid compromising an investigation is not at issue. But once the case is prosecuted, the greater harm lies in not disclosing the records and allowing the public to serve as an additional check in the justice system.
Exemptions within the existing public-records act, such as protecting confidential informants, could still be used to withhold sensitive information, Gittes said. Instead, Columbus police are making blanket denials of case-file requests by journalists, justice advocates, private investigators and others.
The matter came before the court after the Ohio Innocence Project was denied records in the case of Adam Saleh, 28, who said he was wrongly imprisoned for 38 years to life in the 2005 murder of Julie Popovich, 20, of Reynoldsburg.
A lawyer representing the city of Columbus and Police Chief Kim Jacobs faced tough questioning by the court as the attorney argued that the city believes criminal-case records cannot be released as long as a suspect is able to appeal his conviction, even decades later.
“Your argument seems ridiculous,” Justice Paul E. Pfeifer told her.
Holding onto police case files until a convicted person is dead makes them all but useless. It does have one advantage, though: It covers up police misconduct or prosecutorial mistakes until so much time has passed that people can’t be held accountable and damages are mitigated because the person wrongly convicted has died in prison.
It is not surprising that other police departments across the state are said to be latching onto Columbus’ flawed interpretation to deny access to records. The high court, having pulled the shades on the state’s once-strong Sunshine Laws in some recent years’ rulings, has a chance with this case to defend transparency and protect the public.
As Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, has noted in support of the Innocence Project’s case, “I can’t think of anything more important from a transparency perspective than to be able to scrutinize the activity of police: They’re armed. They can take away your liberty.”