Q&A: Anonymous records


From the Courier-Times (New Castle):

Q: We were sent records anonymously of an internal investigation in our sheriff’s department. The documents appear to be legit. We’ll find out more about their veracity when we start asking questions based on them.

The case involves three off-duty deputies who were out drinking. One of them ran his pickup truck into a house. The documents are transcripts of what the deputies say happened that night. All three deputies apparently drank quite a bit that night.

My question is whether these are considered discretionary records under the Public Records Act. Can you think of any reason we shouldn’t use them? 

A: Whether you quote directly from the records or not depends on your faith that they are copies of the actual statements the deputies made.

If they’re not and the deputies and sheriff’s department deny the incident ever occurred, you’ve got a libel suit on your hands. And the question for the jury is whether your publication based on an anonymously received set of documents was reckless disregard of the truth in the face of denials by the officers.

Have the deputies been disciplined? If so, did it reach the level of suspension without pay, demotion or termination?

If that has occurred, the public has the right to documents in the personnel file that detail the disciplinary action and the “factual basis” for the discipline. That would include the statements that you may already have.

If the level of discipline didn’t reach that level, you may have a story concerning whether the sheriff’s department reaction to the incident was strong enough in the minds of citizens.

When did the incident occur? Presumably law enforcement would have been called if a pickup trick ran into a house. If so, there should have been a daily log record available to you within 24 hours of the incident. Did the police create such a record, or did your reporter miss it?

Contact Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, with media law questions at skey@hspa.com or (317) 624-4427.