Smith v. Town of Marana – 10/28/2022

November 14, 2022

Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two holds that government must provide a specific and concrete privacy interest before it may redact information from a public record.

A man was shot in an altercation with another individual.  Town of Marana police officers investigated the incident and submitted the case to the county attorney, who decided not to file charges against either person involved.  Later, the man submitted a public records request to the Town for the police records related to the incident.  The Town provided a version of the police report that redacted the names and images of both individuals involved.  The Town refused the man’s request for an unredacted version of the report, so he filed a statutory special action to compel the Town to produce an unredacted version.

The trial court ruled in the man’s favor.  The court concluded that the report was a public record subject to Arizona’s public records laws and that the Town had failed to demonstrate a sufficient reason to justify the redactions.  The man then requested his attorneys’ fees, which the court granted in part.  The Town appealed both the court’s decision on the public records issue and the fee award.

On appeal the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed.  The Town raised two arguments on the public records issue: (1) that the shooter was a “victim” for purposes of the victim’s rights statutes, which shifted the burden to the man to justify the disclosure of the shooter’s identity; and (2) that the trial court had misapplied the relevant legal analysis.  The Court rejected both arguments.  First, the statutes the Town pointed to as justifying an exception to disclosure only attached when there was a formal arrest or charging of a person.  Neither occurred here—indeed, the police investigation had treated the shooter as the target of a criminal investigation, not the man.

Second, the Court rejected the Town’s argument that the trial court had misapplied the balancing factors governing public disclosure.  The Town primarily argued that participants in uncharged public actions had a heightened privacy interest, but the Court concluded there was no support for this position.  The Court similarly rejected the Town’s concern that technology made it increasingly easy to locate identities and other information released in public records.  That concern did not change the underlying interests in robust public disclosure, and, regardless, any such concern was a matter for the legislature.  The Town had ultimately failed to demonstrate a specific privacy interest at risk, and so it was obligated to produce the unredacted version of the police report.

Finally, the Court affirmed the fee award.  The Town argued that, because it had acted promptly in providing the records and with good faith in redacting them, a fee award was unwarranted.  But those factors only went to whether a fee award was justified as a sanction—here, the man was clearly the prevailing party, and was thus entitled to a fee award as a matter of statute.

Judge Eckerstrom authored the opinion for the Court, joined by Judges Vásquez and Cattani.

Posted by: Joshua J. Messer