By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The city of Havre has asked the state Attorney General's Office whether law enforcement can withhold from the public the names of crime victims and, in some cases, the locations of crime scenes.
The request has sparked concern that such a policy would limit the public's ability to have critical information about crimes in their communities.
Havre Daily News Publisher Harvey Brock said he is deeply concerned about the content of the city's letter to the Attorney General's Office.
"I think the city attorney and the chief of police are asking for an opinion that will jeopardize the safety of the people in Havre, and the entire state," Brock said. "The public has a right to know what is happening in their community. The law is very specific about what information has to be contained in the officer's initial incident report."
A number of media organizations across the state object to the letter's content and have become involved with the issue, said John Kuglin, Montana bureau chief for The Associated Press.
"Today we requested that the attorney general draft a response to this," he said. " We asked the AP be allowed to comment on the draft. I also furnished him a list of media groups that would like to comment, including the Montana Newspapers Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Havre Daily News, and also the Montana Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists."
In a Nov. 18 letter to McGrath, Havre city attorney Mary VanBuskirk requested a formal opinion about whether, at the request of victims, law enforcement agencies can deliberately withhold information about the victims and the locations of crime scenes in cases referred to as "crimes against persons." Those include homicide, kidnapping, robbery, assault and family crimes.
Currently, only the names of victims of sex crimes are not public information under state law.
Havre Police Chief Kevin Olson, who asked VanBuskirk to draft the letter, declined to comment on it.
"That is correspondence between the city attorney and the attorney general, and any comment needs to come from the city attorney," he said.
VanBuskirk said in a voice mail left on a reporter's telephone at 7:42 a.m. today that McGrath has assigned assistant state attorney general Pam Bucy to write a report for McGrath about the city's request.
"He says upon receipt of the report, he will determine whether or not the request provides an appropriate basis for an official opinion," VanBuskirk said.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice declined to comment.
VanBuskirk's letter quotes an excerpt from a 1988 opinion by former state Attorney General Mike Greeley that said that when a specific privacy right is involved, "information should be altered by deletion including the elimination of names, specific ethnic designations or other classification" to preserve the privacy interest in question.
After citing part of Greeley's opinion, VanBuskirk's letter asked McGrath if withholding victim information would conflict with state laws.
"Would the creation of a policy, providing upon the request of the victim for all (crimes against persons), total confidentiality to the identity of all victims, including the name, address, telephone number, and place of employment, be in conflict (with Montana law)?" the letter asked.
Montana statute lists only four crimes for which the victim's name may be withheld from the public - sexual assault, sexual intercourse without consent, incest and indecent exposure. The letter to McGrath asks if the authority can be extended to cover all crimes in chapters 1 through 6 in Title 44 of Montana Code Annotated. These chapters encompass all crimes against persons, including homicide, kidnapping, robbery, assault, and offenses against the family.
Montana law allows police to withhold some information about victims of crimes against persons, but names are not listed among them.
"If a victim of an offense requests confidentiality, a criminal justice agency may not disseminate, except to another criminal justice agency, the address, telephone number, or place of employment of the victim or a member of the victim's family," the law reads.
A victim's address must be released to the public if it is the scene of a crime, according to the law.
VanBuskirk's letter questioned if circumstances may occur in which the victim's privacy expectations outweigh the public's right to know.
"Can the police department withhold information in instances where publicly disclosing the address of the crime scene would surely draw inference to the name of a victim?" she asked McGrath.
Establishing a policy of withholding the names of victims and the locations of crime scenes would curtail the public's right to receive information about a crime, said Kuglin of the AP.
"I'm concerned with the effects this would have on initial incident reports," Kuglin said, referring to the public documents police departments are required to provide the public.
Kuglin argued that every citizen should have a fundamental right to know not only who within the community is being victimized, but also where crimes occur.
"People would not be able to take precautions to protect themselves," he said. "For instance, if they did not know an area of a city where crime was occurring, they wouldn't know to lock their doors, buy deadbolts, set up community watches, and do other things to ensure their safety.
John Shontz, attorney for the FOI Hotline, said he also is concerned.
"I think the attorney general will have a difficult time complying with this in terms of the statute. We look forward to participating in that commentary and that discussion," he said.
"The fundamental reason for (freedom of information laws) is so that people cannot make false accusations - secret accusations - and so law enforcement can't create allegations that are not true," Shontz added. " That openness is part of that system. It's designed to protect the citizens from rogue elements of government."
Brock said the Havre Daily News will pursue the matter in court if the attorney general agrees to limit access to information that is now public.
"The chief of police and the city attorney are, for whatever reason, asking the attorney general to change the law to read what they would like it to read. We take the public's right to know very seriously at the Havre Daily News, and will challenge in court any opinion offered by the attorney general that denies or limits access to public information guaranteed by law," he said.