NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that the public is not entitled to access police records while a criminal case is being prosecuted or during an appeal.
In a sweeping opinion written by Justice Sharon Lee, the state's highest court found that state law does not allow access to information contained in police investigative files. The opinion said a state rule of criminal procedure known as Rule 16 exempts those files from the Public Records Act. Only criminal defendants in some instances, and not the media or interested citizens, are allowed access to the files.
The opinion stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a statewide media coalition led by The Tennessean and including The Associated Press. It began after a Tennessean reporter was denied records in a case involving four former Vanderbilt football players accused in the rape of a student in a campus dorm in June 2013.
"The media plays an important and necessary role in holding government officials accountable," Lee wrote. "Yet, the General Assembly has rightly recognized that there must be exceptions to the public's right to obtain government records and, in doing so, has provided that the media's role must yield to the need to protect the rights of defendants accused of crimes and the integrity of the criminal justice system during the pendency of criminal cases and any collateral challenges to criminal convictions."
An attorney for several media and First Amendment advocates suggested some police agencies might use the opinion to refuse to disclose important details to the public about crimes in their communities as a result of Thursday's decision.
"If they don't feel like they don't want to give out information, then they're not required to do so — and that's the result of this opinion," Douglas R. Pierce, a Nashville attorney, said of police agencies. Pierce represented a number of media and First Amendment advocates who filed an amicus brief, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The Tennessean had asked to inspect records that third parties had provided in the case and not the police. The records included text messages and videos. The Tennessean has said that it had no interest in getting videos of the alleged sexual assault or of using the woman's name without her permission.
The alleged victim, a former Vanderbilt student who has since graduated, intervened in the case to prevent the media from getting the records. The opinion said the Supreme Court's ruling in the case would protect her privacy.
Former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Gary Wade disagreed with the majority. He wrote a dissenting opinion that said the majority on the court wrongfully concluded that Rule 16 would exempt all police records from public disclosure. He said the rule only protects witness statements and work product of police and prosecutors. Wade, who retired from the bench in September, said a Davidson County chancellor should consider the victim's claim.
Lee's opinion, along with a separate concurring opinion written by Justice Holly Kirby, showed divisions on the state's highest court.
Lee attacked Wade's opinion as a "thinly disguised effort to stir up controversy and public attention." Kirby's separate opinion agreed with the majority and said Wade's "professed concern for the rights of the victim in this case can only be described as high irony." She said his position would leave witnesses and crime victims to fend for themselves in the face of public records requests they found intrusive.