The Phoenix Police Department had already spent more than half a million dollars investigating the Zubia case--the family of five was found murdered in its Phoenix home in August 1992--when KTVK-TV (Channel 3) special projects producer Pamela Tighe requested access to the department's homicide report.
It cost the police department an estimated $585.75 in labor to censor the 406-page report and prepare it for Tighe's viewing. (It is common practice to censor police reports when an investigation is ongoing, as with the Zubia case.) Tighe was told that she could carry home the censored report for a mere $111.75, the legally sanctioned photocopying fee.
But there was just one problem. Tighe didn't want copies. She just wanted to take a look.
Arizona media attorneys agree there's no doubt that Tighe--like any other member of the media or public--has the right to examine such public documents on the premises of the agency. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Yarnell agrees, as well. In August he ruled in favor of Media America Corporation (KTVK's parent company) after KTVK took the Phoenix Police Department to court.
Now Phoenix taxpayers, paying through the Phoenix PD, can add almost $4,723.25--KTVK's legal fees--along with the department's own legal tab to the expenses on the Zubia murder investigation. A costly lesson, indeed. And from what other local reporters say, the police department hasn't learned much about the media's right to information. The department's spokesperson, Sergeant Kevin Robinson, declined to comment on the KTVK case, other than to say he is not aware of any plans to appeal the decision. "We wanted it to go through the court process, the judge ruled on it, and we will abide by that," he says. Media attorneys David Bodney, Dan Barr and Lee Stein say they can't think of an instance where a public agency could justify charging a member of the media or public for the privilege of viewing a public document. Stein, who with Barr represented KTVK in the case, says he was "amazed" that the Phoenix Police Department allowed the case to go before a judge.
Phil Alvidrez, news director at KTVK and president of the First Amendment Coalition (a co-plaintiff in the case, although KTVK took financial responsibility), says the case protects the rights of those who wish to view public records, and places the responsibility for preparing the records where it belongs--with the public agency.
"The cost of maintaining public records is part of the cost of doing business, and if there's a cost associated with that, then that's no different than the cost of having enough officers on board to be able to fill out their police reports and still respond to crime on the streets," Alvidrez says.
In an opinion dated August 10, Yarnell wrote that although the police department did eventually allow Tighe access to the documents, the department was at fault because of its initial refusal to grant viewing privileges:
". . . Tighe's written request clearly asks that the Department make the report available for 'examination and copying.' Examination of the report was not permitted until the copying fee was remitted. While copies of the report were not denied, clearly Plaintiffs (KTVK) were denied 'access to' the records in question." Further, Yarnell added, "The distinction in the [public records] statutes between access to and copies of records may not be blurred simply because sensitive information must be redacted from a report." Alvidrez says he hasn't had any additional problems with the police department. Others haven't been so lucky. Lew Ruggiero, a reporter for KPNX-TV (Channel 12), says he continues to have difficulty getting police documents. He says he paid for a copy of the Zubia case, and was disappointed to find scores of blank pages; the information had been censored, but Ruggiero was charged for the copies, anyway. Ruggiero criticizes the department for wasting public money by allowing cases such as Media America Corporation v. Phoenix Police Department to go to court.
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"They're paying with house money," Ruggiero says. "There is no penalty of any kind to anyone in the police department or any public agency for doing this. I mean, it's just simply like, 'Oh, we spent a bunch of taxpayer dollars. Oh well.'"
The department apparently engages in selective foot-dragging, as well.
Last week, New Times staff writer Darrin Hostetler had to circumvent the Phoenix Police Department's media request process to get his hands on a police report. Hostetler placed three telephone calls and faxed two written requests to Robinson in late October and early November.
When he received no response, Hostetler asked an acquaintance to request the desired report in person at the police department's public information counter. Hostetler's emissary received a copy of the report within four days. Only the first page had been censored.
"Seems like that situation speaks for itself," says First Amendment attorney Barr.
Hostetler still hasn't heard from Robinson. Contacted last Monday, Robinson says that Hostetler's request is being processed, and Hostetler will receive a censored report within 14 working days of the initial written request, which was filed October 26. Asked why a member of the public obtained a report in four days while a reporter got no response for weeks, Robinson says, "I have no idea.