Ohio Supreme Court rules for police photo protection
One attorney said he fears the decision will make police departments more 'secretive.'
COLUMBUS -- Identification photos of police officers are not open to the public, according to an Ohio Supreme Court decision released Wednesday.
A 6-1 decision written by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton shot down claims by The Plain Dealer of Cleveland and The Vindicator that photos of police officers held by police departments are public record.
"The Plain Dealer's and the Vindicator's assertions are meritless," the decision read.
"[State statute] unambiguously exempts the requested police officer photographs because they identify the officers' occupation as peace officers."
"When a statute is unambiguous in its terms, courts must apply it rather than interpret it. Moreover, even were we to use the interpretative rules that the Plain Dealer and the Vindicator request, a different conclusion would not be warranted."
In April, The Vindicator and The Plain Dealer of Cleveland squared off against the cities of Youngstown and Cleveland over the public availability of police officer identification photos.
Attorneys for both newspapers argued before the high court that the photographs should be a matter of public record and that no other state has denied access to those photos.
They also argued the police departments already put the pictures in public sites through yearbooks and other displays.
Attorneys representing the cities involved maintained past general assemblies have been clear on their intentions to prohibit availability of certain police personnel records to the public, including the photographs in question.
They also argued releasing the photos could be harmful to the officers or their families.
Attorneys for the newspapers disagreed and stated there was no evidence the officers or their families would be placed in increased danger with the release of the photographs.
However, the high court's ruling declared these photos are included in the statute that protects personal information of the officers and their families.
"Because the plain language of [Ohio law] includes police officer photographs within the exemption for peace-officer residential and familial information, the city has no duty to provide copies of the photographs to the Plain Dealer," the decision read.
The decision also stated the provisions of Ohio law that protects those photos does not override department policy requiring the officer to provide an ID, including name, rank and badge number when asked by the general public.
"Those regulations serve the related purpose of protecting the public from persons impersonating officers," the decision read.
"That purpose could be subverted if people have access under [Ohio law] to the same photographs that Cleveland and Youngstown use to prepare police identification cards."
Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and Justices Alice Robie Resnick, Maureen O'Connor, Terrence O'Donnell and Judith Lanzinger comprised the majority in the decision.
Justice Paul Pfeifer agreed with the majority decision in part but he disagreed with other parts and wrote a separate opinion.
"I write separately because not every picture maintained by the police departments in this case is an exception to the Public Records Act," Pfeifer wrote in his separate opinion.
"Pictures that do not depict officers in their uniforms, however, do not identify the officers' occupation as peace officers," Pfeifer wrote.
"A caption in a newspaper would identify the person in the non-uniformed picture as a peace officer, but the Plain Dealer and the Vindicator are not seeking captions; they are seeking pictures. I dissent to the extent that the majority opinion enables the police departments in this case to circumvent the Public Records Act by not releasing pictures of non-uniformed police officers."
The Cleveland case arose when The Plain Dealer requested photographs of officers in 2003 for newspaper articles and was denied.
Reporters at The Vindicator were also denied access to photos of a Youngstown police officer on two separate occasions in 2004.
Columbus attorney Frederick Gittes, one of two attorneys representing The Vindicator and The Plain Dealer, said he believes the decision will lead to more secretive police departments.
"It's a really disappointing and disturbing decision," Gittes said. "It allows a bad law to get worse before it is corrected.
"The General Assembly should be embarrassed this law exists."
He said he believes the law will need to be corrected someday and that Ohioans will not stand for "police officers turning into secret agents."
Gittes added the decision shows the insensitivity and the unreality of the Supreme Court and "protects the worst elements of police departments."
Attorney David Marburger, representing The Vindicator, said he would recommend that media organizations urge lawmakers to change the wording of the law.
"Would it be appropriate to redact the identity of the police officer who arrested you ... or the police officer you saw beating the heck out of somebody ...?" Marburger said.
Youngstown Law Director Iris Guglicello represented the city in the matter and said she wasn't surprised by the court's decision.
She said despite warnings that with Ohio's open records laws it would be unlikely the court would rule in the cities' favor, she said she believed the statute was so clear it would be hard for the high court to rule against the city.
"I'm very pleased," she said of the decision.