ACLU Settles Public Records Case With Jackson County Sheriff
June 14, 2012 - Public records requests are a vital part of our democratic process, and an integral part of the ACLU’s work. The ACLU’s May 2012 settlement with Jackson County, following a favorable circuit court decision by Judge Daniel Harris, vindicated the right of the ACLU, as well as all Oregonians, to access public documents.
In September of 2010, the ACLU filed a request with Jackson County to obtain records about the use of force and other conditions in the Jackson County Jail. In response, Jackson County refused to produce any records until the ACLU paid Jackson County a staggering $4,574, an amount completely without connection to its actual expenses, and which ignored the fact that the ACLU would use the information in order to further the public interest. In May 2011, the ACLU filed suit to resolve this issue.
Because public records requests are an essential way of obtaining information that the public has a right to know, Oregon Revised Statute 192.440(5) provides that a public body may furnish copies without charge or at a substantially reduced fee in order to benefit the public interest. The Oregon Court of Appeals found in the 2005 case In Defense of Animals v. OHSU that the public body’s decision to grant or deny such a fee waiver must be reasonable.
Accordingly, after a full trial, in February of 2012, Circuit Court Judge Daniel Harris found Jackson County’s demand for $4,574 (which it reduced to $2892.05 at trial) was objectively unreasonable, and the County “abused its discretion in refusing to substantially reduce the cost of providing copies of the requested records.” Judge Harris noted that even if Jackson County was correct in claiming that the only person qualified to make copies of records was an administrative sergeant being paid $38.48 an hour, the 23.5 hours Jackson County maintained it needed to copy the records would only amount to around $900 in expenses. Judge Harris further found that there was no reason Jackson County needed to use such a highly-paid employee, and that therefore a reasonable fee for the records was $500. Lastly, the Court held that providing the requested records to the ACLU was in the public interest and benefited a legitimate public purpose. The County subsequently appealed that decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals.
In May of 2012, the ACLU settled its case with Jackson County. In exchange for the County dropping its appeal, the ACLU agreed to pay $675 for the jail records. In turn, Jackson County agreed to produce the records and pay $16,988.63 of the ACLU’s attorney fees within 30 days. This settlement, in which Jackson County paid the ACLU over 25 times more than the ultimate fee for the records, is ample proof that obstruction of the public’s right to access public documents doesn’t pay.
Cooperating attorneys on this case were Charles F. Hinkle of Stoel Rives LLP and Allen G. Drescher, PC.