The prosecution of Toby Stangel in connection with a shooting rampage on June 3 has shone a light on a disturbing treatment of public documents. Police and city officials have demonstrated a bunker mentality about what information about crimes should be released, a wholly inappropriate response — and one that is wasting taxpayer funds.
More specifically, they seem to be starting from a default position against giving the public access to various documents related to the case, including 911 and police dispatch tapes.
This runs afoul of the stated purpose of the law, known as the Uniform Information Practices Act, a declaration "that the formation and conduct of public policy — the discussions, deliberations, decisions, and action of government agencies — shall be conducted as openly as possible."
The refusal of the Honolulu Police Department to release any of the tapes upon request led the Star-Advertiser to assert its rights of access in court.
CITY LAWYERS had indicated willingness to hand over five of the nine 911 tapes the Star-Advertiser sought in the civil action against Stangel; last week Circuit Judge Edwin Nacino ordered their release. The others were ordered withheld for one of two reasons.
In the case of three tapes — those recording the two victims wounded and the teenage daughter of the woman who was killed in the shooting spree — Nacino found that an exception in the state open-records law for the protection of privacy applied here.
There’s certainly community sympathy for victims of violent crime, but, even so, it’s at least debatable whether that outweighs the public interest in this case.
In the case of the fourth tape — believed to include a witness’ description of the vehicle driven by Stangel — the city’s rationale is weaker. It’s based on the law’s exception allowing "government to avoid the frustra- tion of a legitimate government function." Nacino will allow lawyers to make that case at trial.
Government trots out this "frustration" argument frequently as an excuse to avoid producing a document, said the Star-Advertiser’s attorney, Jeffrey Portnoy. He argues that law enforcement and other officials owe the public a more specific explanation: How, precisely, would releasing this tape be a problem?
The criminal case on Stangel revealed an even more outrageous demand. Stangel’s defense lawyers wanted to seal all documents related to the case, before it has even become clear which documents they were.
Fortunately, Circuit Judge Glenn Kim denied that request, rejecting the lawyers’ contention that the documents would generate publicity that would jeopardize his rights to a fair trial.
Kim correctly observed that the argument "borders on the ludicrous" and pointed out that defendants received fair trials in other, even more notorious cases, such as the
Among the distressing aspects of this episode is the way in which police officials dragged their feet in even responding to the media request, in violation of the records law. This must not be considered the model for how other government agencies should approach similar circumstances.
The news media, and the public they represent, should not be compelled to drag government agencies into court as a matter of course, particularly because the taxpayer will end up footing the bill for legal fees they run up.
Worst of all, the handling of the Stangel case records highlights a careless attitude about the importance of public access to documents, the official record of the way government provides its mandated service.
The opening sections of the UIPA law describes the central issue perfectly: "Government agencies exist to aid the people in the formation and conduct of public policy. Opening up the government processes to public scrutiny and participation is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest."
Observing the law, then, is central to good government. It should be treated as the default rule, not an annoyance to be ignored whenever possible.