by Megan Rhyne
In February an Albemarle County resident contacted the Coalition for help getting the accident report for an incident involving her parked car and a drunken driver. Though she knew the driver was eventually arrested, the resident wanted to know the driver’s name, the charge filed against him and/or the court date.
She called the arresting officer and sent two e-mails without any response. Finally, in response to a third e-mail - three weeks after her first request - the officer responded, saying that while his investigation of the matter was over, he would not give her any of the information or records she requested.
Setting aside the fact that the officer botched the FOIA request by not responding to the resident’s first three inquiries, we’re not sure what else he was thinking.
Section 2.2-3706(B) of FOIA specifically states that "information in the custody of law-enforcement agencies related to the identity of any individual, other than a juvenile, who is arrested and charged, and the status of the charge or arrest shall be released."
The drunk driver in this case was not a juvenile, so releasing the name and charge should have been a no-brainer. And it’s just plain wacky to withhold a court date, seeing as how, last time we checked, court dockets and trials are open to the public.
On top of that, §46.2-379 of the Virginia Code requires the Division of Motor Vehicles to release accident reports upon request.
Granted, police may withhold certain "criminal incident information" related to felonies if release of the information would jeopardize an investigation, so MAYBE the officer thought that applied here. But even that subsection, §2.2-3706(B), says that such a limitation is lifted once the "damage" to the investigation is no longer likely to occur. Once the driver was charged, and, by the officer’s own admission, the investigation was over, it’s hard to understand what damage the officer thought he was preventing.
Turns out, he wasn’t thinking. That’s because he was new and he hadn’t yet been trained to respond to FOIA requests. Luckily, the local chief of police had been. He heard the resident’s complaint and said he’d look into it. Here’s what happened next, in the words of the resident:
"[A] police captain called me at home and advised that I was entitled to the requested information, and he would have a lieutenant call me the next morning. The lieutenant did call me at 8 a.m. the following morning, and he also confirmed that the officer had erred by not releasing the requested information. He advised that the officer was new on the job, but he had remedially counseled him on the proper procedures. At about 8:30 that same morning, the officer called me and apologized. He indicated that he believed he could not release the information, but now understood his mistake. He gave me the information, and I called the court . . . and obtained the court date."
In other words, the higher ups understood that the information was public, and they not only saw to it that the resident got it, but they also made sure the junior officer understood that the information was public. Getting him to apologize to the resident surely reinforced both the lesson on public information, but also sent a message to the officer that the chief of police places a premium on being accountable to the citizens of his county.
It should also be noted that the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police has continually worked to improve its FOIA proficiency ever since police compliance with FOIA was dismally low in a 1998 audit. Training efforts were stepped up and a great new pamphlet was drawn up; it’s now in its third edition. VACP has consistently worked with the Coalition since then, and its efforts paid off when, in a follow-up FOIA audit last September, police compliance was triple what it had been in the 20th Century.
Training, and the right attitude, really does make a difference.
Making Your FOIA Life Easier
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Thursday, May 30, 2013
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