Allsop v. Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc., 00-278.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
Citation39 P.3d 1092,2002 WY 22
Docket NumberNo. 00-278.,00-278.
PartiesRoger ALLSOP, Laramie County Sheriff, Appellant (Defendant), v. CHEYENNE NEWSPAPERS, INC., d/b/a Wyoming Tribune Eagle; and Brian K. Martin, Appellees (Plaintiffs).
Decision Date08 February 2002

Representing Appellant: Peter H. Froelicher, Laramie County Attorney. Argument by Mr. Froelicher.

Representing Appellees: Bruce T. Moats, Cheyenne, WY. Argument by Mr. Moats.


HILL, Justice.

[¶ 1] Laramie County Sheriff Roger Allsop (Allsop) seeks review of an order of the district court that required him to disclose, to the public and press, portions of a report reviewing and evaluating the Laramie County Detention Center's (LCDC)1 inmate suicide prevention protocols. On the advice of counsel, Allsop refused to provide a copy of the report to Appellee, Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc. (Newspaper), and Newspaper filed a complaint seeking access to the report on the basis that it is a public record. The report is referred to as the "Cox Report" and is so named after its author.

[¶ 2] We will affirm the district court's order.


[¶ 3] Allsop raises these issues:

I. Did the district court err when it denied Sheriff Allsop's motion to dismiss Appellees' claim for release of part of the Cox Report?
II. Did the district court err when it ordered Sheriff Allsop to release all but a small portion of the Cox Report to Appellees?

The Newspaper rephrases those queries:

I. Was the district court correct in finding that Wyoming law does not require that an entire report be withheld from public scrutiny if the disclosure of only a portion of information would be contrary to the public interest[?]
II. Was the district court correct in finding that the vast majority of the Cox report did not involve jail security procedures and only a small portion of [the] report fit within the statutory exemption to public disclosure codified at W.S. § 16-4-203(b)(i)[?]

In his reply brief, Allsop poses these additional questions:

I. Does the language—"or any portion thereof" in Wyoming Statute § 16-4-203(a) apply to the law enforcement records exception in Wyoming Statute § 16-4-203(b)(i)?
II. May Appellees, despite having admitted that the Cox report satisfies the first prong of the law enforcement exception in district court, now assert that the Cox report does not satisfy the first prong of the law enforcement exception?
III. Do any of Appellees' arguments concerning the district court's unsupported findings in his decision letter have any merit?

[¶ 4] Allsop became Laramie County Sheriff on January 4, 1999. Beginning in January of 1998, LCDC experienced a significant increase in attempted inmate suicides. In the spring of 1999, two inmates succeeded in committing suicide inside LCDC. Allsop sought assistance from the National Institute of Corrections to assess LCDC's suicide protocols, with a goal of preventing inmate suicides and suicide attempts. The National Institute of Corrections provided Allsop with the expertise of Judith F. Cox for that purpose. Cox came to Cheyenne and reviewed the above-described inmate suicide events, LCDC itself, and interviewed those persons principally charged with the responsibility for inmate well-being. Allsop received a report of Cox's conclusions in the autumn of 1999.

[¶ 5] On October 5th and 18th, 1999, Newspaper asked Allsop for a copy of the report, and Allsop denied those requests. On November 5, 1999, Newspaper filed an action which resulted in this appeal. In the course of the proceedings below, the district court indicated that the Cox Report "potentially fits within [the] exemption" for law enforcement investigatory material but did not conclude that the Cox Report was an investigatory record. In addition, the district court stated that it was ". . . not prohibited from ordering partial disclosure of an investigatory record. Rather, redaction of portions where disclosure would harm the public interest is a legitimate method of both protecting the public interest and recognizing the law's emphasis on public disclosure." Based upon that reasoning, the district court denied Allsop's motion to dismiss the complaint. That motion was premised on the theory that the statute is an "all or nothing" proposition. The report was either exempt from disclosure or it was not, and a district court does not have statutory authority to excise any information from the report, the release of which might be contrary to the public interest, and then order the release of the remainder of the report.

[¶ 6] In addition, the district court denied Allsop's motion for summary judgment, which was premised on a theory that Allsop, as a matter of law, was correct in determining that it was contrary to the public interest to release the report. At that point in the proceedings, neither the district court nor Newspaper had seen the report. The district court opined that it was not possible to make a determination of that issue without first seeing the report in camera. Thus, the district court denied the motion for summary judgment and directed Allsop to provide a copy of the Cox Report to the court for its in camera review.

[¶ 7] The parties stipulated that in lieu of a trial, the district court would conduct a hearing and decide the issues posed to it based upon all material in the court file, including affidavits submitted by Allsop, the Cox Report itself, and the arguments of counsel. Newspaper, of course, favored release of the report, at least in a redacted form, on the basis that the public had a right to know if there was a need for additional staff in the sheriff's office or for additional jail facilities, as well as to evaluate election issues about taxes and the election of a sheriff. Allsop argued that release of the report was contrary to the public interest because:

1. Disclosure would have a chilling effect, discouraging law enforcement from thoroughly investigating security and/or safety problems.
2. Disclosure would reveal security procedures and deficiencies in the jail's ability to monitor inmates, thereby increasing the risk of inmate suicide and increasing the risk of aggression by inmates against other inmates or jail staff.
3. Disclosure would describe screening techniques used to assess an inmate's risk of suicide, enabling inmates to mask or hide their suicidal tendencies.

[¶ 8] The district court determined that the evidence only justified the redaction of one small portion of the report and ordered the release of the remainder. That decision was stayed pending the resolution of this appeal.


[¶ 9] The issues raised by Allsop require us to construe the Wyoming Public Records Act (WPRA). In interpreting statutes, our primary consideration is to determine the legislature's intent. All statutes relating to the same subject or having the same general purpose must be considered and construed in harmony. Statutory construction is a question of law, so our standard of review is de novo. We begin by making an inquiry respecting the ordinary and obvious meaning of the words employed according to their arrangement and connection. We construe the statute as a whole, giving effect to every word, clause, and sentence, and we construe all parts of the statute in pari materia. Wyoming Board of Outfitters and Professional Guides v. Clark, 2001 WY 78, ¶ 12, 30 P.3d 36,

¶ 12 (2001).

[¶ 10] With specific respect to the WPRA, we have augmented that standard of review. The WPRA and the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have a common objective, which is that disclosure, not secrecy, should prevail. Implementation of that goal is provided by affording a liberal interpretation2 to the WPRA and construing its exceptions narrowly. Sublette County Rural Health Care v. Miley, 942 P.2d 1101, 1103 (Wyo.1997); Sheridan Newspapers, Inc. v. City of Sheridan, 660 P.2d 785, 794 (Wyo. 1983); Laramie River Conservation Council v. Dinger, 567 P.2d 731, 733 (Wyo.1977). Indeed, we used this language in the Sheridan Newspapers case to further explicate the applicable standard of review:

Given the policy of the state as announced through the Public Records Act, the custodian, in any exercise of his right to withdraw, must confine his withdrawal discretion to those areas and circumstances prescribed by this Act. Having taken this restriction into account, the custodian must then employ his discretion on a selective basis rather than through the withdrawal of entire categories of public records—as was done by the chief of police in this case. Since the public policy which pertains to the Public Records Act speaks to the philosophy of disclosure, it is therefore contrary to that philosophy for the police chief to withdraw entire categories of public records—or any public records— without first addressing the issue which asks whether or not the withdrawal of individual [emphasis in original] records, documents, or portions thereof violates provisions of the Act. In other words, the language of the statute imposes a legislative presumption, which says that, where public records are involved, the denial of inspection is contrary to the public policy, the public interest and the competing interests of those involved. This, then, places the burden of proof upon the custodian to show that the exercise of his discretion does not run afoul of statutory limitations in any particular instance where custodial withdrawal is effected.

660 P.2d at 795-96 (footnote omitted).

[¶ 11] In Laramie River Conservation Council, 567 P.2d at 734, we opined that:

There is a well-known expression applied to those in public office, "If you can't stand the heat, you'd better stay out of the kitchen." Confrontation has a salutary effect and causes those in positions of public responsibility to practice thoughtfulness and wisdom in their utterances and carefully weigh their decisions. Paraphrased from Environmental

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