Manns v. City of Charleston Police Dept.

Decision Date15 May 2001
Docket NumberNo. 28743.,28743.
Citation209 W.Va. 620,550 S.E.2d 598
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
PartiesLaura MANNS, Plaintiff Below, Appellee, v. CITY OF CHARLESTON POLICE DEPARTMENT and Jerry Riffe, in his Official Capacity as Chief of Police, Defendants Below, Appellants.

John R. Teare, Jr., Bowles, Rice, McDavid, Graff & Love, Charleston, West Virginia, Attorney, Attorney for Appellants.

Jason E. Huber, Forman & Crane, Charleston, West Virginia, Attorney, Attorney for Appellee.

Amicus Brief Dennis R. Vaughan, Jr., James V. Kelsh, West Virginia Municipal League, Inc.

PER CURIAM:

This case is before this Court upon appeal of a declaratory and injunctive relief order entered by the Circuit Court of Kanawha County on February 24, 2000, ordering the appellants and defendants below, the City of Charleston Police Department and Jerry Riffe, in his official capacity as Chief of Police1 (hereinafter "appellants"), to disclose various police records including internal investigation documents pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request by the appellee and plaintiff below, Laura Manns. In this appeal, the appellants contend that the circuit court erroneously concluded that the requested documents were not exempt from disclosure pursuant to W.Va.Code § 29B-1-4 (1977).

This Court has before it, the petition for appeal, the entire record, and the briefs and argument of counsel.2 For the reasons set forth below, the final order of the circuit court is reversed.

I.

The appellee was arrested on November 11, 1996, after she refused to pay a bus fare at the KRT Transit Mall in Charleston, West Virginia. The appellee was charged with several offenses including battery on a police officer and resisting arrest. Thereafter, the appellee asserted that police officer Cathy Smith used excessive force in carrying out her arrest. Accordingly, the appellants initiated an internal investigation. In addition, the appellants asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation (hereinafter "FBI") to conduct its own, independent investigation. Both the appellants and the FBI exonerated Officer Smith.

Subsequently, the appellee retained counsel to represent her in a federal civil rights claim and to defend her against the criminal charges.3 As part of her pre-suit investigation, the appellee requested that the appellants provide various records and information including internal investigation documents to her pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, W.Va.Code § 29B-1-1 to -7 (1977) (hereinafter "FOIA"). The appellants produced about half of the records the appellee requested and objected to supplying the remaining documents and information. Consequently, the appellee filed suit in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County on February 5, 1997, and requested the circuit court to compel disclosure of the remaining documents despite the appellants' objections. After the matter was briefed and argued, the circuit court ruled that the appellee was entitled to a mandatory injunction compelling the production of the records that she requested, except the limited documents to which there is a valid internal memoranda claim.

II.

We begin our analysis of this case by setting forth our standard of review. As discussed above, this case requires an interpretation of the FOIA. In Syllabus Point 1 of Chrystal R.M. v. Charlie A.L., 194 W.Va. 138, 459 S.E.2d 415 (1995), this Court held that "[w]here the issue on an appeal from the circuit court is clearly a question of law or involving an interpretation of a statute, we apply a de novo standard of review." With this standard in mind, we now consider the parties' arguments.

This appeal primarily concerns the appellee's FOIA request for the following information:

a. The names of every officer against whom a complaint has been made, or who the Charleston Police Department has investigated on their own, regarding that officer's behavior while in the course of employment or otherwise;
b. The names of every officer against whom a civil or criminal complaint has been filed regarding their behavior while in the course of employment or otherwise;
c. In respect to subpart "a" and "b" please state the outcome of said complaints or investigations.

The appellee has also requested information regarding the officer who arrested her. Specifically, the appellee has asked whether any complaints have been filed against the officer; the substance of those complaints; and the disposition of those complaints. The appellee has further sought a copy of or access to the appellants' records regarding the investigation of the appellee's arrest.

This Court recently addressed a similar request for police records in the context of discovery during civil litigation. In Maclay v. Jones, 208 W.Va. 569, 542 S.E.2d 83 (2000), the plaintiffs, Donald and Karen Maclay, through a notice of deposition and subpoena duces tecum, requested records relative to an internal affairs investigation of complaints filed against a state trooper as well as the trooper's personnel file. In response, the defendant West Virginia State Police sought a protective order claiming that statutory and common law privileges prohibited disclosure of the requested information. Eventually, the circuit court certified questions to this Court for a determination of whether this type of information was subject to disclosure during civil litigation.

In Syllabus Point 2 of Maclay, this Court determined that:

The provisions of this state's Freedom of Information Act, West Virginia Code §§ 29B-1-1 to -7 (1998), which address confidentiality as to the public generally, were not intended to shield law enforcement investigatory materials from a legitimate discovery request when such information is otherwise subject to discovery in the course of civil proceedings.

Thus, this Court held that:

Records and information compiled by an internal affairs division of a police department are subject to discovery in civil litigation arising out of alleged police misconduct if, upon an in camera inspection, the trial court determines that the requesting party's need for the material outweighs the public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of such information.

Syllabus Point 3, Maclay. However, we also stated that:

Before a circuit court is required to engage in an in camera inspection of records and information compiled by an internal affairs division of a police department to make a determination regarding the production of such documents through discovery, the party opposing disclosure must first make a substantial threshold showing that specific harms are likely to result from the disclosure of the requested materials.

Syllabus Point 4, Maclay. While our decision in Maclay is certainly instructive, it is not dispositive of the issues now before us. In this case, the police records were sought through a FOIA request and at that time, there was no ongoing litigation.4 As we noted in Maclay, the "FOIA provisions which address the confidentiality of records and their availability to the general public are aimed at protecting interests distinct from those at issue when records are requested in conjunction with a civil rights action." 208 W.Va. at 574, 542 S.E.2d at 88 (citations omitted). Thus, we must determine whether the documents requested by the appellee are exempt from disclosure pursuant to W.Va. Code § 29B-1-4 as asserted by the appellants.

The FOIA provides that "[e]very person has a right to inspect or copy any public record of a public body in this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by section four [§ 29B-1-4] of this article." W.Va.Code § 29B-1-3(1) (1992). Before we address the exemptions set forth in W.Va.Code § 29B-1-4, we note that one of the appellee's requests is for "the names of every officer against whom a civil or criminal complaint has been filed regarding their behavior while in the course of employment or otherwise." Pursuant to W.Va.Code § 51-4-3 (1990), civil and criminal complaints are filed in and maintained by the circuit clerk's office. Because W.Va.Code § 29B-1-3(2) requires a request to inspect or copy a public record to be directed to the custodian of such public record, we find that the appellants fully complied with this FOIA request by providing the names of all of the current police officers. With the names of the officers, the appellee could obtain the information she seeks in this request by inspecting the records of the circuit clerk as provided for in the FOIA as well as W.Va.Code § 51-4-2 (1923).5 Therefore, we find that the circuit court erred to the extent that it ordered the appellants to provide additional information to satisfy this FOIA request by the appellee.

We now consider the appellee's remaining requests which seek internal investigation records. The appellants claim that this requested information should not be disclosed pursuant to W.Va.Code § 29B-1-4(2) which exempts:

Information of a personal nature such as that kept in a personal, medical or similar file, if the public disclosure thereof would constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy, unless the public interest by clear and convincing evidence requires disclosure in the particular instance: Provided, That nothing in this article shall be construed as precluding an individual from inspecting or copying his own personal, medical or similar file.

The appellants contend that the circuit court erred by making a blanket finding that there was no potential for an "unreasonable invasion of privacy." The appellants assert that this statutory provision contemplates individualized review of the privacy interests of each affected employee. Given the fact that the appellants employ approximately 182 police officers, they claim that the appellee's request is unreasonable especially since it contains no time limitation. More importantly, the appellants state that the appellee's...

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