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The Providence Journal Co. v. The Rhode Island Department of Public Safety

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 11, 2016

The Providence Journal Company et al.
The Rhode Island Department of Public Safety, by and through Peter Kilmartin, Attorney General et al.

Providence County Superior Court, PC 12-5458., William E. Carnes, Jr., Associate Justice.

For Plaintiffs: Joseph V. Cavanagh, Jr., Esq. Mary C. Dunn, Esq. Robert J. Cavanagh, Jr., Esq.

For Defendants: Michael W. Field Lisa Pinsonneault Malena Lopez Mora Department of Attorney General

Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, and Indeglia, JJ.


Gilbert V. Indeglia, Associate Justice

The Providence Journal Company and Amanda Milkovits (collectively, the Journal or plaintiffs), seek review of an order granting summary judgment entered against them and in favor of the Rhode Island Department of Public Safety, the Rhode Island State Police, and Steven G. O'Donnell, in his capacity as the Commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Public Safety and Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police (collectively, defendants). The Journal filed suit in Providence County Superior Court alleging violations of Rhode Island's Access to Public Records Act (APRA), G.L. 1956 chapter 2 of title 38, after they unsuccessfully requested records from the Rhode Island State Police concerning an investigation of an underage drinking incident at property owned by the then-Governor, Lincoln Chafee. On appeal, the Journal takes issue with the Superior Court's determination that the requested documents are not subject to public disclosure pursuant to the APRA. After careful consideration of the submitted memoranda and oral arguments, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

I Facts and Travel

The travel of the case is easily sketched. On May 28, 2012, Caleb Chafee (Caleb), the son of then-Governor Lincoln Chafee, hosted a party on property owned by the then-Governor, during which some underage attendees consumed alcohol. At some point, an underage female left the party and, shortly thereafter, she was taken to a local hospital for alcohol-related illness. As a result, the Rhode Island State Police went to the property[1] to conduct an investigation. This investigation resulted in the compilation of 186 pages of investigative documents, including witness lists, witness statements, land evidence records, and narrative reports written by various officers (collectively, the requested records). At the conclusion of the investigation, Caleb was charged with the furnishing or procurement of alcoholic beverages for underage persons in violation of G.L. 1956 § 3-8-11.1, to which he pled nolo contendere in Rhode Island District Court on August 22, 2012, and received a $500 civil penalty. On March 13, 2013, a judge of the District Court granted Caleb's motion to expunge his record.

However, Caleb's liability was not the only product of the police investigation. In an effort to gather further information about the incident, on June 21, 2012, Amanda Milkovits (Milkovits), a reporter for the Providence Journal Company, sent an email to Colonel Steven G. O'Donnell (Col. O'Donnell), in which she "request[ed] copies of state police reports regarding the May 28 incident involving Caleb Chafee." This email further stated: "This is a public report, regarding the responses and actions of public employees. It's in the public interest to know how the situation was handled regarding the governor's son-especially since the state police answer directly to the governor. This is a matter of transparency." In a letter dated June 25, 2012, the Rhode Island Department of Public Safety (the department) denied Milkovits' request for access to the documents. The purported reason for the denial was two-fold: (i) "the requested records [were] exempt from disclosure at [that] time, due to an ongoing criminal investigation and/or prosecution"; and (ii) the records "could reasonably be expected to be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy * * *."

At some point, a state trooper revealed redacted copies of at least three of the requested records to a WPRO radio talk show host.[2] Apparently, this information suggested that Caleb demanded that the underage female who was treated for alcohol-related illness be removed from the premises and requested that no one call 911 until she was well away from the property.

On August 21, 2012, Milkovits sent another email to Col. O'Donnell in which she stated that she was "following up on the charging of Caleb Chafee in the Memorial Day party." Milkovits further indicated that "now that he's being charged, I'd like a copy of the report." In a letter dated August 29, 2012, the department again denied her request. As a reason for its denial, the department provided that the requested records "are not considered public records under Rhode Island law [because] * * * Rhode Island General Law § 38-2-2 excludes records identifiable to an individual in any files and law enforcement records, the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." This letter also contained the following language: "[E]nclosed please find a copy of the summons issued in this matter, as well as the violation complaint as filed with the Rhode Island District Court. These records have been entered into the District Court file and are therefore publicly available."

By letter dated September 5, 2012, the Journal requested that the department reconsider its denial of the records request.[3] On September 10, 2012, the department stated that it had reconsidered its initial denial as requested, but its position had not changed; thus, it denied the Journal's request for the same reasons as provided in its letter dated August 29, 2012. On September 24, 2012, the Journal filed an appeal with Col. O'Donnell pursuant to § 38-2-8, which was also denied.

Finding no relief through this preliminary out-of-court skirmishing, on October 22, 2012, the Journal filed a complaint in Providence County Superior Court, alleging violations of, inter alia, the APRA, the United States Constitution, and the Rhode Island Constitution. On March 5, 2013, pursuant to the Journal's request, defendants provided the Journal with a Vaughn index[4] of each item withheld by the government.

In due course, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. In the Journal's motion, it argued that summary judgment should be granted because it was entitled to the requested records pursuant to the APRA. In response, defendants argued that public disclosure of the requested records would be inconsistent with the District Court's expungement order in Caleb's case. The defendants also argued that the records were exempt from public disclosure pursuant to the APRA, which deems not to be public "[a]ll records maintained by law enforcement agencies for criminal law enforcement and all records relating to the detection and investigation of crime, * * * [where] the disclosure of the ...

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