Dallas County Fights Texas AG on Incident Reports

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Dallas County claims in court that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was wrong when he said the county’s sheriff must disclose death and accident reports about an unarmed man who died in the county jail’s lobby last year.

Dallas County sued Paxton in Travis County District Court on Tuesday, disputing his ruling on a Texas Public Information Act request filed by Dallas attorney Scott Palmer in September. Palmer represents the estate of Joseph Hutcheson.

Hutcheson, a white man from Arlington, allegedly parked his truck outside of the jail on the morning of Aug. 1, 2015, and ran inside, yelling that his wife was trying to kill him. Officials said he was handcuffed to calm him down and prevent him from being a threat to others or himself.

Hutcheson can be seen on video flailing his legs on the ground before going limp, resulting in deputies performing CPR. He died shortly thereafter.

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez placed at least six deputies on restricted duty after Hutcheson’s death. A grand jury declined in June to indict four of the deputies involved.

Dallas County asked Paxton to weigh in on Palmer’s open-records request that asks for the complete criminal investigation file, all video footage of the incident and all recorded statements or interviews, among other records. It says Palmer is seeking discovery for a possible civil-rights lawsuit against the county.

Paxton responded on Dec. 16 that certain information can be denied because a litigation exception under state law applies. He said Palmer had previously sent Valdez a letter stating he had been hired “to pursue a possible civil rights violation claim” for excessive force.

On the other hand, Paxton ruled the county must disclose the custodial death report, the accident report and completed investigations and evaluations relating to the incident.

The county argues in its Dec. 27 lawsuit that all of the records requested are protected by the litigation exception.

“It is undisputed that the requestor is seeking the Sheriff Department’s investigative files, personnel files, and standard operating procedures for the sole purpose of filing suit against Dallas County,” the 12-page complaint states. “The letter ruling accepts that the litigation exception applies yet ordered the Sheriff’s Department to turn over the entirety of their file to the requestor to prepare for filing suit against Dallas County.”

The county also argues that the information in the investigation file that did not result in a criminal conviction is confidential and cannot be disclosed under the law.

“Dallas County may at any time raise an exception based on a requirement of federal law or one involving the property or privacy interests of another person,” the complaint states.

Dallas County seeks a declaratory judgment that it does not have to comply with Palmer’s records request. It is represented by Assistant District Attorney Tammy J. Ardole.