Sheridan Newspapers, Inc. v. City of Sheridan

Decision Date11 March 1983
Docket Number5725,Nos. 5724,s. 5724
Citation660 P.2d 785
Parties9 Media L. Rep. 2393 SHERIDAN NEWSPAPERS, INC., a Wyoming Corporation, Appellant (Plaintiff), v. CITY OF SHERIDAN, and Roger F. Krout, Appellees (Defendants). CITY OF SHERIDAN, and Roger F. Krout, Appellants (Defendants), v. SHERIDAN NEWSPAPERS, INC., a Wyoming Corporation, Appellee (Plaintiff).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Lawrence A. Yonkee of Redle, Yonkee & Arney, Sheridan, for appellant in Case No. 5724 and appellee in Case No. 5725.

Duane C. Buchholz, Asst. City Atty., Sheridan, for appellees in Case No. 5724 and appellants in Case No. 5725.

Before ROONEY, C.J., * and RAPER, THOMAS, ROSE ** and BROWN, JJ.

ROSE, Justice.

The appellant Sheridan Newspapers, Inc., publisher of the Sheridan Press newspaper, brought this action to gain access to certain categories of records maintained by the Sheridan police department. The trial judge entered an order from which Sheridan Newspapers, Inc. appeals in Case No. 5724, and from which the City of Sheridan appeals in Case No. 5725. We will reverse in 5724 and affirm in 5725.

Since July 31, 1981, the chief of police of Sheridan has denied the Sheridan Press and other news-disseminating agencies the right In this appeal the newspaper contends that it has a statutory right 2 and constitutional rights 3 of routine access to the rolling log and police case reports. The appellant newspaper concedes that these rights are qualified by the discretion authority of the chief of police, as custodian of the controversial records, to deny disclosure of particular documents or information contained within given records or categories of records on a case-by-case or document-by-document basis when disclosure of such information would be in violation of the statute 4 and therefore contrary to the public interest. 5

                to inspect certain kinds of records maintained by the Sheridan police department, and particularly the "rolling log" and "case reports."   In lieu of press inspection, members of the police department have held press conferences and furnished representatives of the press with news releases prepared by the detectives. 1  This method of news dissemination is unacceptable to the press
                5  The Wyoming Public Records Act provides that the custodian must, if requested by the applicant, furnish a statement containing grounds for denial of access, 6 and any person denied the right of access may apply to the district court for an order directing the custodian of the record to show cause why inspection should not be permitted. 7  In this case, the chief of police did not furnish any factual basis or reasons for closing the records when responding to the appellant newspaper's request for explanation for closure

The rolling log, which is also referred to as the "daily log," is prepared by the police dispatchers and can be described as a chronological index of all reports and complaints received by the department; in other words, it is any information that callers report to the dispatcher over the telephone. The rolling log typically contains one line of information concerning each subject reported to the department. The dispatcher receiving a call records a case number, type of case, a brief description of the event, the name of the person reporting the matter and the name of the officer assigned to the case. These entries are not verified and are used by the department as an index.

In testifying about the rolling log, the chief of police acknowledged that this form of document contained no information obtained as a result of investigation. 8


The term "case report" speaks of information recorded on a form on which is entered data relating to various sorts of police activity. A case report may detail a matter from complaint, through investigation, to arrest. It may, on the other hand, record a situation in which police have checked out a tip from an anonymous caller to which no further attention is given, no culpable party discovered, no arrest made, and with no further communications from the initial complainant. 9

It is conceded by the newspaper that the case reports may contain material obtained as a result of investigation. It is the press'

contention that even if this is so, the custodian has no resulting authority to invoke a blanket withdrawal of this class of record without exercising his discretion on a case-by-case or document-by-document basis within the parameters of his statutory limitations.


The trial court found that the rolling log and case reports are public records. The court further decided that members of the public (which of course includes the press) 10 have a right to inspect "jail logs," traffic accident reports, and complaints and citations issued. The trial judge went on to hold, however, that the custodian of the police records may properly deny public access to the police rolling log and case reports and that plaintiff newspaper and the public do not have a constitutional or statutory right of access to inspect these categories of police records.


Both parties have appealed. In Case No. 5724, Sheridan Newspapers, Inc. contends that blanket closure of the rolling-log and case-report categories of police records is unlawful in that appellant has a statutory and constitutional right to routinely inspect those records, subject to the police chief's right of withdrawal in instances where the inspection is prohibited by court rule or order (e.g., § 9-9-103(a)(iii), supra)--or where it can be shown that disclosure of the disputed record is investigatory in character as contemplated by § 9-9-103(b)(i), supra, 11 and that disclosure would therefore be contrary to the public interest. The press goes on to contend that in this case the records custodian did not show any valid and legally acceptable reasons why the questioned categories of records should or could be withdrawn.

In Case No. 5725, the City of Sheridan appeals from the part of the judgment which, it alleges, restricts the closure authority of the chief of police. The aspects of the judgment to which it objects are those which it says engraft upon the Wyoming Public Records Act additional requirements which must be met by the record custodian before he may exercise his discretion to deny the plaintiff or the public the right to inspect these records. In the City's language, objections are made to these following alleged additional requirements which are contained in the judgment:

"(1) any exclusion must be on a 'case-by-case basis', and

"(2) 'such exclusion shall be only on a very limited basis', and

"(3) 'only upon extraordinary circumstances', and

"(4) 'for good cause shown', and

"(5) 'then only for such limited time as may be necessary.' " 12


Summarized, the main questions in this appeal where Sheridan Newspapers, Inc. is appellant may be said to be these 1. How is the Public Records Act to be construed with respect to police records?

2. What, if any, authority do the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Federal Constitution and Article 1, Sections 20 and 6 of the Wyoming Constitution give the press to have access to the records of law enforcement agencies?

The Law
The Court's Historical Disclosure Position

In Laramie River Conservation Council v. Dinger, Wyo., 567 P.2d 731, 733 (1977), we compared Wyoming's Public Records Act with the Federal Freedom of Information Act and said:

"The policy and dominant object of the Freedom of Information Act is on disclosure, not secrecy."

We went on to say:

"* * * We hold that analysis to be applicable to Wyoming's Public Records Act."

This holding is but another pronouncement from this court having to do with making the public's business available to the public whenever that is possible. The courts, legislature, administrative agencies, and the state, county and municipal governments should be ever mindful that theirs is public business and the public has a right to know how its servants are conducting its business. Furthermore, it is for government to remember that the written, viewing and broadcasting press are the eyes and ears of the people. The citizenry must be permitted to hear and see what public officers and their employees say and do whenever the imparting of this knowledge does not run contrary to the rights of those otherwise protected in a way that would result in disclosure having the effect of inflicting such irreparable harm as is recognized at law.

It was in this vein that we addressed a court-closure issue in Williams v. Stafford, Wyo., 589 P.2d 322, 325 (1979), when we said:

"There is almost universal agreement among the courts, which have considered the right-of-access issue, that access to court proceedings should be limited only in exceptional circumstances. See Gannett Pacific Corp. v. Richardson, supra; Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v. Jerome [478 Pa. 484, 387 A.2d 425 (1978) ], supra; and Keene Publishing v. Keene District Court, N.H. , 380 A.2d 261 (1977). The reason for requiring all court proceedings to be open, except where extraordinary reasons for closure are present, is to enhance the public trust and confidence in the judicial process, and to insulate the process against attempts to use the courts as tools for persecution. Gannett Pacific Corp. v. Richardson, supra."

The justices of this court, in line with the concept of maximum disclosure, have recently opened the Wyoming Supreme Court to television coverage so that the people may better see and understand the judicial system.

In Record-Times, Inc. v. Town of Wheatland, Wyo., 650 P.2d 297 (1982), when addressing the meaning of a statute which speaks to the municipalities' obligation to publish the towns' bills, this court concerned itself with the subject of public disclosure of the people's business when we held that the intent of the legislature was--and the applicable statute...

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