CHICAGO (CN) – Citizens have the right to access public court filings, but they can review only the final outcome of internal police department complaints, a federal judge ruled.
The dispute arose after O’Neal Johnson sued several Chicago police officers for false arrest, malicious prosecution and other charges.
Relying in part on the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (IFOIA), which mandates that “the public should have access to information regarding the acts of public officials and employees,” Johnson requested access to complaint register files regarding cases in which the police department investigated possible misconduct by its employees.
The police department in turn asked the court to issue a protective order on such files.
Johnson argued that the files could help him win a motion for summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall said the state law greatly limits such access.
“IFOIA clearly states that the provision exempting from public disclosure records relating to a public body’s adjudication of employee grievances … ‘shall not extend to the final outcome of cases in which discipline is imposed,'” Gottschall wrote.
With that in mind, Johnson may access the final disposition reached in a given complaint register, or CR, file, but he cannot review the entirety of each grievance.
As the Chicago police contended, “only the final outcome of a case in which discipline was imposed is a public record; the rest of the CR file is exempted from public disclosure.”
Johnson should be allowed to “retain a copy of court filings that were not filed under seal,” Gottschall concluded, rejecting the police’s claim that such filings “are not part of a public record.”
“The defendants argue that if they are required to ask the court to weigh in on a confidentiality dispute, they might neglect to do so in the allotted time frame, leading documents to be inappropriately released, which would result in a parade of terribles,” according to the nine-page ruling.
But Gottschall said this reasoning forces Johnson to pay the price for police defense attorney slipups.
“Johnson should not be required to move the court to resolve confidentiality disputes because the defendants doubt their own ability to comply with simple procedures for protecting their own interests,” Gottschall wrote.
The judge emphasized in closing that it would not allow the police to exploit their access to protective orders.
“Should the defendants use confidentiality designations in bad faith to, for example, drive up the cost of litigation or impose an undue burden on Johnson, the court will not hesitate to use its power to impose sanctions,” Gottschall wrote.
The police must submit a revised protective order before the litigation can continue.