Wis. officials must give ‘legally specific’ reason for withholding files

Sunday, February 3, 2008

MADISON, Wis. — A sheriff’s department did not give a sufficiently specific reason for refusing to release an investigative report to a newspaper, a state appeals court has ruled.

The ruling came in a case filed by the Portage Daily Register against the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department. The department denied the newspaper’s 2006 request for a report related to possible illegal campaign fliers for the sheriff’s race.

The sheriff’s department, in justifying its denial, said its report had been forwarded to the district attorney’s office and was part of an open investigation.

While the Columbia County Circuit Court ruled that was a legitimate reason for denial, the District 4 Court of Appeals said that explanation was too generic and did not serve the purpose of the open-records law.

The department must state a “legally specific policy reason” why the public interest in disclosure is outweighed by the interest in withholding the particular record, the court ruled.

The sheriff’s department “stated only that the matter had been referred to the district attorney’s office and was related to an ongoing investigation. This is a statement of fact, not a public policy reason for denying access,” the court said.

The newspaper’s publisher, George Althoff, praised the decision.

“This is an extremely important decision for the public,” Althoff said. “It forces police agencies to review on a case-by-case basis, to seriously consider whether to release reports.”

Dan Jardine, the attorney who represented the sheriff’s department, said a decision hadn’t been made on whether to appeal the ruling. He downplayed the impact.

“It is trying to set clear guidelines with respect to the production of public records,” Jardine said of the ruling. “And in this particular case, quite frankly, this was quite a lot to do about quite a little. This is a very short police report that contained very little information.”