Alleged Police Negligence Locked in the Vault
MANHATTAN (CN) - Reporters cannot read the confidential police report that prompted a lawmaker to shame police officers over the murder of a young mother by her abusive ex-boyfriend, the 2nd Circuit ruled.
Long Island news outlets have long sought details about how police could have better protected Jo'Anna Bird before she was stabbed to death by her child's father.
Leonardo Valdez-Cruz is serving life in prison after his 2010 conviction on first-degree murder and other charges.
Bird's mother, Sharon Dorsett, meanwhile accused the Nassau County Police Department of failing to keep a close watch on Valdez-Cruz, who had several orders of protection against him. Discovery in that case produced an internal affairs report originally intended for release to the public in redacted form. County police, however, won an injunction preventing its disclosure.
Newsday and New 12 intervened in the case, but were unable to convince the magistrate to open the document to public scrutiny.
Dorsett and the department eventually reached $7.7 million settlement, but local legislators refused to approve it before seeing the evidence that supported it, the 2nd Circuit explained Monday.
The court noted that one reader of the report, Massapequa, N.Y.-based Republican Peter Schmitt, fumed in a televised statement: "There are 22 police officers in this county who were mentioned in that confidential Internal Affairs report who ought to be ashamed to look at themselves in the mirror every morning when they get up to shave, much less be wearing the badge... Orders of protection were ignored... mandatory arrests were called for and not performed, giving a cell phone to the prisoner when he was behind bars and allowing him to call the victim 35 to 40 times, and on and on and on." (Ellipses in original.)
Although the parties finalized the settlement in January 2012, Schmitt's remarks led to contempt proceedings months later, which were largely closed to the press and resulted in a $2,500 coercive sanction against the legislator.
Schmitt died of a heart attack that October.
Newsday and News 12 meanwhile pressured the federal appeals court to disclose the report and the contempt proceeding transcripts.
A three-judge panel granted only half of that request Monday.
"After conducting our own independent review of the hearing transcript, we conclude that the district court's concerns do not outweigh the public's First Amendment presumptive right of access to court proceedings," Judge Gerard Lynch wrote for the panel.
According to the 32-page order, the unsealed transcript reveals only the date of the report, the number of police officers mentioned in it, and how many were women.
"None of these bits of information raises significant confidentiality concerns that would in themselves warrant sealing the courtroom or the transcript," Lynch wrote.
The fact that so little of the document was disclosed doomed the reporters' arguments that it required public access, according to the ruling.
"We conclude that the report, as it was used or as it could be expected to be used in the contempt hearing, is not the type of judicial document to which the First Amendment right attaches," Lynch wrote.
Judge Raymond Lohier concurred but disagreed with his colleagues' rationale for keeping the report under seal. The Nassau police report was a judicial document, but releasing it would not have helped the press weigh the propriety of the contempt proceedings, he said.