A recent Ohio Supreme Court ruling is a reaffirmation of the need for public records to remain exactly that -- public -- unless there is a clear and compelling reason for them to remain confidential.
The high court ruled unanimously in a case involving the Ohio Highway Patrol that the burden of proof lies with the custodian of public records, in this case the patrol, in demonstrating that any information withheld from the public is, indeed, exempt from disclosure under the Ohio Public Records Act. The arbitrary rationale utilized by many law enforcement agencies that information cannot be released because the case is "under investigation" was deemed insufficient by the court.
The case at issue involved a Cincinnati man who sought impaired-driver reports and video and audio recordings from a traffic stop made by the patrol. The patrol described the withheld records as "investigatory work product," part of the "confidential law enforcement investigatory record" exception in the public records law.
The court ruling stated: "Exceptions to disclosure under the Public Records Act are strictly construed against the public-records custodian, and the custodian has the burden to establish the applicability of an exception. A custodian does not meet this burden if it has not proven that the requested records fall squarely within the exception."
In simpler language: Unless the public records custodian, in this case, the law enforcement agency, can clearly demonstrate that the requested information falls with the confidentiality exception, it must be available to the public.
The high court returned the Cincinnati case to an appellate court, which will determine whether the materials that were withheld by the patrol are exempt from public disclosure.
We can understand the need for confidentiality in law enforcement, but we also have encountered instances where "That's under investigation" has been the blanket rationale for withholding information from the media and the public. Custodians of other governmental records also are no strangers to making access to public documents difficult, if not impossible.
The public has a right to know what government is doing, and that includes the operations of law enforcement agencies. Secrecy, sadly, can be an invitation to abuse. That's why Ohio has a Public Records Act.
"Public" means public. The Supreme Court ruling is a welcome reminder that if records are closed, there has to be a very good -- and legal -- reason for them to be closed.