District court decision reaffirms GRAMA access to public records in San Juan case
A 7th District Court judge has ruled that mug shots of a man and woman booked into the San Juan County Jail are public records under Utah's open records statute.
In addition, the court's decision indicated that the pictures should have been released when KSL-TV requested the photographs in connection with a news story in 2007.
The ruling issued by Judge Douglas B. Thomas in the case of KSL TV vs. San Juan County is an affirmation of the responsibility of government agencies to carefully weigh requests for information under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act, indicated the state's press association.
GRAMA favors public access to government records, according to the Utah Press Association.
In the district court's decision, Judge Thomas ruled that the San Juan County Sheriff's Office acted unlawfully in denying KSL's request for jail booking photographs of a male and a female subject convicted of committing two different crimes against a juvenile victim, explained the press association.
The county's improper decision to withhold the photographs was possibly influenced by "how that record might be used in the publication of a story," pointed out Judge Thomas in issuing the court's ruling.
The notion that public records would be withheld because an agency may not like the nature of news coverage is "very troubling ... to the point that it does, in fact, go to censorship," continued the court.
The San Juan County Sheriff's Office was ordered to provide the jail photos to KSL following the judge's delivery of an oral ruling during the May 8 hearing in Monticello.
"That for the good and protection of the community the public is entitled to know those individuals who have committed crimes against minors - committed any crimes, but in this particular case especially against a minor," ruled the 7th District Court adjudicator.
San Juan County had argued that public disclosure of the photographs would constitute an invasion of privacy of the convicted individuals.
But the judge rejected the argument, ruling that "the court cannot find why the publication or release of a record of someone who has been convicted of a crime is a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
Under the fundamental principle of GRAMA, records are presumed to be public, stated the district court.
Categorical classification in advance is of little or no relevance once an agency receives a request for a specific record under GRAMA, continued Judge Thomas.
Requests for public records must be weighed individually, neutrally and with a presumption in favor of access, stressed the district court adjudicator.
"The Utah Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists commends KSL for its diligence in pursuing this lengthy challenge. KSL was able use its resources on behalf of all the citizens of the state of Utah," said Allison Barlow Hess, Utah chapter president, following the court's decision.
"The judge's ruling reminds record holders that mug shots are public records and must be made available to anyone who seeks them without any need to justify or clarify their intended use," pointed out Hess
In issuing the oral ruling, Judge Thomas cited a Utah Supreme Court decision in an unrelated case involving the classification of public records.
"The court also made it very clear, and I want to make this clear as well, that a tie between the competing interests goes to releasing the record; it does not go to keeping it private," pointed out Judge Thomas.