A recent Ohio supreme court ruling has decided that the police department of the city of Columbus has illegally withheld a number of public records that related to closed criminal cases. Since 2010, the police department has refused to release records in homicide cases, as well as the cases that got extensive media coverage during the course of their investigation. Though the police department has mostly refused to release these files to private investigators, they have also withheld these files from reporters (particularly the Columbus Dispatch) and a number of other private citizens who requested the information from the police department.
Though this practice has existed since 2010, the state’s supreme court recently ruled that this practice is illegal and in some opinions, unconstitutional. Among other shortcomings with the police department’s procedures, it was found that the city’s government relied on previous court rulings so much as to be improper. The city of Columbus’ attorneys argued that if a defendant still had appeals, then their records should not be released, and that appeals that can be filed at nearly any time. Critics of this law claimed that this in essence kept those files secret until defendants were freed from prison or died.
The lawsuit was filed by the Ohio Innocence Project and the group’s main argument was that the city police department’s stance on keeping files secret was keeping innocent citizens in prison while the actual culprits were allowed to walk the streets since police files were impossible to examine by third parties. With the recent controversies over the rights and limitations on American police departments, this ruling has made an immediate impact on the national legal scene and many citizens’ groups are hailing this as a victory for common citizens across the nation.
The justices of the court were divided four to one on the matter, with two justices concurring and dissenting in part. The state’s supreme court ruled that the investigation records become public knowledge once a suspect’s trial concludes, though the court did rule that exceptions were made for records protecting public informants, as well as keeping the use of certain investigation techniques kept from the public. The court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Paul E. Pfefier, wrote that the police keeping records secret until the suspects were deceased was unjust, particularly since sometimes this material can exonerate defendants making appeals. Justice Pfefier in particular seemed concerned for the impact the department’s ruling had on the justice system itself.