By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The Havre Daily News and eight other newspapers and news organizations have sued the city of Havre and three Police Department supervisers, including the former police chief, alleging that the department violated Montana law when information was blackened out in a police report turned over to a newspaper reporter.
The newspaper is asking a District Court judge to order the Havre Police Department to develop and implement a policy that will require the department to provide complete copies of all initial incident reports requested by the public during regular business hours. It also says the Police Department's charge of $3 for each report far exceeds the requirements of state law and asks the judge to rule on that issue.
The complaint alleges that the Police Department improperly blackened out the dates of birth and addresses of six people at a Havre house who were cited with minor in possession of alcohol. Also redacted were the names of two witnesses who were at the house but were not cited, including a minor child of Kevin Olson, Havre's police chief at the time, as well as the name of Olson, whose conversation with the investigating officer is detailed in the police report, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in state District Court in Havre by the Havre Daily News, the Great Falls Tribune, the Daily Inter Lake, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the Missoulian, The Associated Press, the Montana Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Montana Newspaper Association, and the Montana Broadcasters Association Wednesday. The suit was filed against the city of Havre; Olson in his capacity as chief at the time of the report; acting Police Chief Mike Barthel in his capacity as assistant chief at the time; and acting Assistant Chief George Tate, in his capacity as a lieutenant at the time. Olson is now administrator of the Montana Law Enforcement Academy in Helena, which trains police officers for law enforcement agencies across the state. His last day as police chief was Feb. 27.
Harvey Brock, publisher of the Havre Daily News, said the lawsuit will have statewide implications.
"We're asking the courts to decide once and for all for the entire state of Montana what the public has a right to know," he said.
Olson in October asked Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath to issue an opinion about whether police can withhold from the public the names of victims of crimes against persons, which would include robbery, homicide and assault. McGrath has yet to issue an opinion.
"Our hope is the attorney general will not issue an opinion and let the courts decide what is public information," Brock said.
Tate said today he believes the way the department censored the report was correct.
"I agree to disagree with the complaint," he said.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice declined to comment, and Olson referred all questions to the Havre city attorneys. Barthel was at a conference in Helena about 911 emergency communications systems and could not be reached for comment.
City attorneys Mary VanBuskirk and Jim Kaze did not return calls this morning asking for comment.
Judy Beck, communications officer at the attorney general's office, said the attorney general does not issue opinions on matters that are the subject of pending litigation. She said the complaint filed Wednesday will be reviewed to see if it is in conflict with the opinion McGrath is writing on Olson's request about victim information.
The complaint says that Patrick Winderl, police reporter for the Havre Daily News, asked on Jan. 12 to see a copy of an initial incident report about an alleged underage drinking party listed in the police dispatch log for Dec. 22-23. Tate gave Winderl a copy of the initial incident report in which no information was blackened out, the complaint says.
Winderl noted that the report detailed a discussion involving an investigating officer, Olson and a minor child of Olson, who allegedly had been to the house and was not cited, the lawsuit says. The discussion took place at the residence of the minor and Olson.
Winderl did not have enough money with him to pay for a copy of the initial incident report at the time. Winderl told Tate that he would return later in the day to pay for and pick up a copy of the report, the lawsuit says. Tate said he was concerned because the report included the names of witnesses who were not charged and requested that Winderl return the next day, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit also states that when Winderl had asked lower- ranking officers, receptionists or dispatchers to allow him to see initial incident reports in the past, he had been told they were not authorized to give him the reports and referred him to Barthel.
Winderl called the police department about 12:30 p.m. to speak with Tate and was told Tate would not return until 7 p.m.
About 7 p.m., the lawsuit says, Winderl spoke to Tate by telephone and Tate said he was uncomfortable giving Winderl a copy of the report without editing out information about uncharged suspects because Tate had not spoken to Barthel or Olson about it.
Winderl told Tate it was "essential" that Winderl receive a copy of the initial incident report that evening, and immediately went to the Police Department, the complaint says. After waiting about 15 minutes, Winderl met with Tate, who told Winderl that Tate had spoken with Barthel and that Barthel had said certain information in the report was confidential criminal information, the lawsuit alleges.
Winderl received a copy of the report, in which information had been blackened out, and was charged $3, the lawsuit says.
All references to the dates of birth and addresses of the six juveniles charged with underage possession were blackened out of the report, the lawsuit says. All references to Olson and the two juveniles who were not charged also were redacted, the complaint alleges.
The complaint claims that the Montana Constitution and Montana law require that all documents and their contents be open to inspection by the public except when an individual's right to privacy clearly exceeds the public's right to know, and require the public be provided a complete and uncensored copy of every document in the possession of state and local government entities upon demand and upon payment of a fee adequate to cover only the cost of making the copy.
The complaint requests that the state District Court order the city of Havre and the Havre Police Department to institute a policy allowing access to complete copies of all initial incident reports to the public during regular business hours. It also asks the court to clarify what information must be included on such a report, and to order the Police Department to provide copies of the reports at a cost not to exceed the actual cost of reproducing them.
Greg MacDonald, president and chief executive officer of the Montana Broadcasters Association, said the reason the association joined the lawsuit was to make sure public records are being made public.
"We hope to get out of it that all public agencies are abiding by the law and making available to the public all information that should be available to the public," he said.
Montana law is very clear about what information is public information, MacDonald said.
"There's just not much gray area," he added.