Ohio Supreme Court Issues Unanimous Decision Supporting Disclosure of Public Records

The Ohio Supreme Court recently found that the Ohio State Highway Patrol must show that certain materials it withheld under the "confidential law enforcement investigatory records" exception to Ohio's Public Records Act (R.C. 149.43) are in fact exempt from disclosure.  State Ex. Rel. Miller v. Ohio State Highway Patrol, et al., Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-3720 (per curiam).  In the unanimous decision, the Court reversed and remanded the Twelfth District Court of Appeals' decision that found that the relator failed to establish a clear legal right to the records.

The appellant-relator, Mark Miller, filed a writ of mandamus with the Twelfth District in Clermont County, Ohio.  Miller argued that his public records request to the Ohio State Highway Patrol ("Patrol") was improperly denied.  While the Patrol provided some records to Miller, it withheld others under the confidential law enforcement investigatory record exception, including impaired-driver reports, and video and audio recordings from a trooper's cruiser relating to a traffic stop, detention, arrest and transport of the arrestee.  The Twelfth District found that Miller failed to establish a clear legal right, by clear and convincing evidence, to the records sought.  Miller appealed.

The Ohio Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to the appellate court.  Despite numerous procedural defects in Miller's application to the Court of Appeals, the Ohio Supreme Court found that the Patrol's denial letter to Miller "demonstrates on its face that Miller made a public-records request and that the Patrol partially complied with the request but withheld some records.  . . .  In other words, however maladroit Miller's complaint and presentation of evidence, the letter from the Patrol is clear and convincing evidence that Miller has stated a claim for relief . . . ."  Once the Patrol denied the request, the Court found that it "must show that the withheld records fall squarely within a statutory exception."

The Court remanded the case to the Twelfth District and directed the appellate court to apply the two-part test to evaluate whether the records sought are confidential law enforcement investigatory records.  The Court explained that "the Patrol needs to establish that the withheld records pertain to a 'law enforcement matter of a criminal, quasi-criminal, civil, or administrative nature' whose release would create a 'high probability of disclosure' of 'specific investigatory work product.'"

Miller is significant because it reaffirms Ohio's long-standing policy favoring liberal access to public records.  Once a custodian of records denies access, it must show that the records withheld "fall squarely within a statutory exception" (exceptions that are "strictly construed against [it]").  Records custodians should take note of Miller – conclusory citations to an exception under the Public Records Act are not sufficient.  Once a request is denied, a heavy burden falls upon the custodian to show that the records withheld are truly exempt from disclosure.

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Erin Rhinehart | Faruki Partner