Oregon Supreme Court Ruling in Eugene Taser Case Strengthens Public’s Right to Records

ACLU Lawsuit Increases Transparency in Police Use of Force Inquiries

still from video of tasing incident shows man on ground with two police standing over himSeptember 15, 2016 – The Oregon Supreme Court ruled today that the City of Eugene must turn over records to the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon in their inquiry into the high profile use of force against Eugene protester Ian Van Ornum. In 2008, Van Ornum was twice tased while peacefully protesting against the use of pesticides in downtown Eugene.

The City of Eugene relied on an exemption to the public records law to deny the release of documents in the case. 

In the unanimous decision, the court said that the public has strong interest in police oversight.

 “Without mutual trust, the police cannot do their work effectively and the public cannot feel safe,” wrote Oregon Supreme Court Justice Martha Walters. “One way to promote that necessary mutual trust is to make police practices and procedures transparent and to make complaints about police misconduct and the discipline that is or is not meted out open to public inspection.”

The decision reinforces the strong public interest in disclosure of information about the use of force by officers, alleged police misconduct, and the process by which those allegations are reviewed. 

Oregon law says that when an investigation does not result in discipline of any public safety officer then the records will not be released except “when the public interest requires disclosure of the information.” 

With this decision, the court places significant value in the public interest exceptions in Oregon’s public records laws. This will be very important in future public records requests, particularly requests that relate to video captured by police body cameras or dashboard cameras on patrol cars.

Kimberly McCullough, ACLU of Oregon’s legislative director, said the case was a very significant win for Oregonians. 

“Today is a big day for police accountability in Oregon,” said McCullough. “In this time of national concern regarding what is appropriate police conduct, we are proud that Oregon’s answer is now to shed more light on the review process.” 

The Van Ornum tasing incident sparked wide public interest in Eugene. The city’s Citizen Review Board designated it as a “Community Impact Case,” the first to receive that designation. A hearing was conducted and the use of force was declared to be justified. 

Unsatisfied with the ruling, the ACLU of Oregon asked the district attorney to release “all documents used by the Civilian Review Board in reviewing and deciding.” The request was denied and the ACLU of Oregon filed suit against the City of Eugene and the Civilian Review Board to force the documents out.

The trial court ruled against the release of the documents and that decision was upheld by the Oregon Court of Appeals. The ACLU appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, who ruled in their favor today.

McCullough said the ACLU looks forward to having the opportunity to review the Citizen Review Board’s findings. She also said the case highlights the critical need for public records reform in Oregon. 

“The ACLU of Oregon relies on the support of our members and volunteer attorneys to keep these protracted fights for government transparency going,” said McCullough, “but eight years of court battles is too long for those who seek justice.”

Attorneys Steven Wilker, Sarah Einowski, and Gwen Griffith of Tonkon Torp LLP volunteered their time on this case on behalf of the ACLU of Oregon. 

The decision is online at http://www.publications.ojd.state.or.us/docs/S063430.pdf