Havre Daily News
District Court Judge David G. Rice has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Havre Daily News and a host of other news organizations against the city of Havre and members of the Havre Police Department.
In the lawsuit, filed March 12, 2004, Helena attorney John Shontz asked Rice to order the city to implement a policy that would require the Police Department to provide complete copies of all initial incident reports to the public, provide those reports at the cost of reproducing them, and include certain specified information in the reports, including the names and ages of the accused and of witnesses.
The suit was filed after Havre police gave a Havre Daily News reporter a copy of a police report that contained redacted information. The judge ruled that the city met its legal obligation to provide public information when the city, after the suit was filed, gave the newspaper an uncensored version of the same report and that there was no reason to rule on the other issues raised by the lawsuit.
Rice also ordered the city to pay the legal costs accumulated by the newspaper up until the time it was given an uncensored version of the report.
Joining the Havre Daily News in the complaint were the Montana Newspaper Association, Great Falls Tribune, Montana Broadcasters Association, Daily Inter Lake, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Society of Professional Journalists and the Missoulian. The city, former Police Chief Kevin Olson, Police Chief Mike Barthel and Assistant Police Chief George Tate were named as defendants.
The complaint stemmed from a Jan. 12, 2004, incident in which a reporter went to the police station and requested a report concerning an underage drinking party at a Havre home that allegedly occurred the previous month.
The Police Department allowed the reporter to examine a complete copy of the report. He later returned and asked for a copy and paid $3 for a report, which included portions that had been blacked out.
According to the complaint, the original report contained the names, ages and addresses of the six juveniles who were cited and two juveniles who were present and not cited. One of those present but not cited was a minor child of Olson. The initial report also contained a discussion involving Olson, the minor and a police officer at Olson's home.
All references to the names of Olson, his child and the other juvenile who was not cited were blacked out in the edited version of the report, the complaint said, along with the ages, birthdates and addresses of the juveniles who were cited.
In the complaint, Shontz argued that the incident report contained "no personal information which clearly exceeded the public's right to know" and the reporter was entitled to a full and complete copy.
The city provided Shontz with an unedited version of the report on March 29, 2004.
Mary VanBuskirk, who represented the city in the dispute, asked Rice to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the department's action on Jan. 12 satisfied the reporter's constitutional right to receive information. Secondly, she argued that because the city eventually provided the full report, the matter was no longer a matter that should be before the court. In his April 1 decision, Rice agreed with the second argument.
Rice also wrote that, though the plaintiffs argued that the department could reasonably be expected to again refuse to provide full and complete copies of initial incident reports, "a subsequent refusal would have to be resolved on its own merits" because of the prescribed method for balancing the constitutional right to know and the right of privacy.
Rice wrote that he recognizes that initial incident reports are public records under state law. "However," he added, "this is not to say that a privacy right cannot exist in information included within an initial incident report."
Olson said he was pleased with Rice's decision.
"It reaffirms our position that there was no merit to this cause of action," he said today. "It also reaffirms that victims' and witnesses' rights to privacy are protected."
Havre Daily News Publisher Harvey Brock said he was pleased the judge ruled that the newspaper was entitled to an uncensored copy of the incident report but is dissapointed that Rice dismissed the lawsuit.
"As it stands right now, if law enforcement or government withholds information that we at the paper feel is public, we are prepared to go to court to get that information," Brock said.
"We will eventually get the information, and based on this case, the city or county will pay for our attorney's fees," he added.
Brock said a decision on whether to appeal will be made after he consults with Shontz and with other plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Barthel declined to comment. Shontz, VanBuskirk and Tate could not be reached for comment.