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Court rules in favor of police department on inmate’s request for records

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The inmate who filed a public records request with the Indianapolis Police Department nearly nine years ago lost his case on appeal before the Indiana Court of Appeals Wednesday.

John Lane-El was convicted of a sex crime that occurred in 1992 and was incarcerated when he filed his request in 2006 for public records with the Indianapolis Police Department under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act related to his criminal case. The police department did not initially respond to his request, and later, after a court order, produced only a redacted incident report. The city of Indianapolis’ public access counselor Lauren Toppen sent Lane-El the letter responding to his request, telling him that everything else was exempt from disclosure because it was compiled in the course of an investigation.

IPD eventually filed a motion to dismiss and Lane-El filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court ruled in 2013 in favor of the defendants and denied Lane-El’s motion for in camera review of the requested public records.

The Court of Appeals found the lower court erred in determining that IPD is not a public agency subject to the APRA and therefore not a proper party for the lawsuit. The police department qualifies as a law enforcement agency, so it fits the Act’s definition of “public agency.” The trial court also erred in determining that then-Chief of Police Michael Spears was not a proper party and concluding he was immune from suit under the Indiana Tort Claims Act. But Lane-El’s complaint does not allege a type of loss applicable to the ITCA, the judges found. They also found the chief is not a proper party to the suit because the APRA does not authorize an action to compel records against an individual.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting the police department’s cross-motion for summary judgment because the public records Lane-El requested were “investigatory records” that were exempt from the APRA at IPD’s discretion. The judges rejected Lane-El’s argument that because the records were more than 20 years old and not part of an active investigation, they should be released.

They also found the trial court did not commit clear error in denying his motion for in camera review.

The case is John Lane-El v. Michael Spears, in his official capacity of Chief of Police, and the Indianapolis Police Department, 49A05-1306-PL-289.

 

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