(CN) — The Nevada Supreme Court awarded legal fees Thursday to an investigative media outlet that secured police records related to the 1996 murder of rap legend Tupac Shakur, finding a lower court correctly ruled the outlet was the prevailing party in the matter.
Shakur was shot and killed at the intersection of Flamingo Road and Koval Lane in Las Vegas in 1996. An investigation into the shooting remains ongoing.
The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) sued the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department in 2017 for refusing to hand over records and documents related to the murder case.
Attorneys for the news outlet said in court papers the department should release internal documents about the case after the FBI opted to do so for its own files.
Despite the Nevada Open Records Act compelling law enforcement to answer records requests within five days, CIR’s request stalled for nearly four months, though the police department eventually found the files were exempt from the law since the investigation is open.
The center argued in its lawsuit the Las Vegas police department had not provided a justifiable reason to deny the request.
“There is no Nevada statute that expressly and unequivocally deems records relating to an open criminal investigation to be privileged or confidential,” the center’s lawsuit said.
Before an Eighth Judicial District Court hearing in the case, the police department reached an agreement with CIR to release 1,400 files in the case and granting the company the right to challenge redactions and seek attorney fees.
Applying the catalyst theory of recovery, Judge Elizabeth Goff Gonzalez later ruled CIR was the prevailing party in the case — and could petition for legal fees — since its actions led to the release of public records.
On appeal before the Nevada Supreme Court, attorneys for the police department argued CIR did not prevail in the matter since Gonzalez had not entered an order compelling production of the records.
Gonzalez should have instead applied the prevailing party test used in the 2015 case Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department v. Blackjack Bonding, Inc., the department said in court papers.
In an 11-page opinion, Nevada Supreme Court Justice Abbi Silver found Gonzalez correctly applied the catalyst theory and that CIR was the prevailing since its request produced changes in the department’s behavior.
“Critically, LVMPD agreed to turn over roughly 1,400 documents when faced with an in-camera evidentiary hearing,” Silver wrote for the high court. “Thus, the record supports the district court’s determination that the lawsuit was the catalyst for the LVMPD’s release of the requested records.”
Silver found application of the catalyst theory also supports the Nevada Legislature’s intent behind the public records law: public access to information.
A Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The high court also held a public records requester does not have to obtain an order on the merits to seek attorney fees.
“Moreover, here, the district court did not enter an order compelling production of the records because the parties came to an agreement before the district court could enter an order on the merits,” the ruling said, affirming Gonzalez’s judgment.
Associate Chief Justice Mark Gibbons and Justice Lidia S. Stiglich rounded out the panel.
Victoria Baranetsky, general counsel for the center, praised the ruling.
“In a time of diminished transparency, The Center for Investigative Reporting is very pleased with this decision. Our counsel at Campbell & Williams and Philip R. Erwin and Samuel R. Mirkovich did a terrific job and we were very pleased with the outcome,” Baranetsky said in a statement.