Innocence Project Sues New Orleans for Info

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas demanded $1,800 to respond to a public records request for a dozen arrest reports, so the Innocence Project sued him, saying that’s too much.
     Innocence Project New Orleans sued New Orleans and Serpas, Orleans Parish Court.
     “Innocence Project New Orleans (‘IPNO’) is a non-profit law office that represents innocent prisoners serving life sentences in Louisiana and Mississippi,” the lawsuit begins.
     “Since its founding in 2001, IPNO has relied on access to public records under the Louisiana Public Records Act (‘PRA’) to investigate and prove cases of wrongful conviction. The instant suit stems from NOPD’s refusal to allow IPNO to view requested incident reports free of charge as required by the governing statute and case law.”
     According to the lawsuit: “the Louisiana Public Records Act provides that ‘the initial report of the officer or officers investigating a complaint … shall be a public record.’ La. R.S. §44:3(A)(4)(a)” and that “no fee shall be charged to any person to examine or review any public records.”
     But the New Orleans Police Department demands $1,800 to pull the 12 reports.
     The Innocence Project asked for the reports on June 6.
     “The request was made by filling out the NOPD’s ‘Request for Initial Police Report’ form. Information was provided regarding type, time and date of the reported crime, the location of occurrence, and the names of parties involved. IPNO had obtained this information from searching newspaper archives,” the complaint states.
     That very day, assistant city attorney Anita B. Curran responded.
     “The response asserted that the NOPD ‘must generate a “calls for service” report for each address at the cost of $150.00 each’ in order to fulfill IPNO’s request. The reply went on to state that these fees would be in addition to the $25 fee charged for each initial report.” (Citation to exhibit omitted.)
     The Innocence Project responded in a letter to Curran “that charging fees to inspect initial police reports is not legally authorized under the Louisiana Public Records Act and IPNO was not requesting to view or obtain copies of any ‘call for service’ reports.”
     Two days later, Curran called the Innocence Project staff member who had submitted the request, Duncan Frazier.
     “During this conversation, Ms. Curran informed undersigned counsel that IPNO did not need to pay the $25 fee per report to view the report, but would still be required to pay $150 per report to generate each ‘calls for service’ report. Ms. Curran stated that this was because NOPD internal procedures involved an NOPD staff member determining the NOPD item number for each initial report by using the date and location of the crime provided by IPNO to locate a computerized ‘call for service’ report. Ms. Curran further stated that because the municipal code mandated a $150 fee for production of computerized records, this fee had to be paid for each requested initial. Therefore, the defendant’s position is that IPNO must pay $1,800 to review the requested records.
     “As of the date of filing, IPNO has received no other response from the NOPD of City of New Orleans Law Department concerning IPNO’s request of June 6, 2012.”
     The Innocence Project claims that $150 fee is unconstitutional.
     “Article 12, section 3 of the Louisiana Constitution provides that ‘[n]o person shall be
     denied the right to … examine public documents, except in cases established by law.’
     “The Fourth Circuit has stated, ‘[t]here is now an increasing body of opinions illustrating the principle that the Public Records Act is to be liberally construed in favor of broad public access to public records.’ Carter v. Connick, 623 So. 2d 670,
     673 (La. App. 4 Cir. 1993).
     “The Louisiana Public Records Act provides that ‘the initial report of the officer or officers investigating a complaint … shall be a public record.’
     “The Louisiana Public Records Act states that ‘no fee shall be charged to
     any person to examine or review any public records.'” (Citations to Louisiana Public Records Act omitted.)
     Innocence Project seeks a writ of mandamus ordering Serpas to provide it access to the 12 arrest reports, “to inspect and copy them with equipment provided by IPNO without charge to IPNO or, in the alternative, with only a reasonable charge.”
     The New Orleans Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
     The Innocence Project is represented by staff attorney Richard Davis.

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