Court of Appeals rules in Woodburn Independent's favor
Pamplin Media Group and Woodburn Independent won a three-year-long public records case against the City of Salem Sept. 6. The Oregon Court of Appeals overturned a previous ruling by a trial court that the City of Salem was correct in denying the release of arrest records to the Independent on the grounds that they related to child abuse records.
The case developed out of a request made by former Independent reporter Tyler Francke for the arrest record of Klain Joseph Pippert, a North Marion High School grad who turned himself in for sex abuse of a minor in 2015.
The appeals court opinion states that under Oregon's public record laws Francke should have been given access to records of Pippert's arrest.
"I feel vindicated by the opinion, I didn't understand where they were getting their justification from," Francke said.
When Francke first asked for information about Pippert's arrest the city denied him access because the documents contained the identity of Pippert's minor victim. Francke did not intend to access or publish information about the minor victim, as it is the policy of news media organizations in the United States not to release the identity of minors who are victims.
"Their justification was the desire to protect the identity of the victim; we had no interest in the victims identity, we were interested in the perpetrator," Francke said.
When the city denied him access he asked if the city would provide the files with the victim's identity redacted. His request was again denied and the Independent sued the city for access to the records. In a bizarre twist the victim's name was released and available to the public in the indictment filed against Pippert.
"We brought that up and they didn't have a good answer," Francke said. "The only people who actually protected the victim's name was the Independent. It felt very dishonest."
The city justified withholding Pippert's arrest records under the provisions of ORS 419B.010 through 419B.050, which govern the collection of reports of child abuse by the Oregon Department of Human Services and law enforcement. However, the provisions of ORS 419B.010 through 419B.050 do not relate to law enforcement arrests or records of arrests. Those records fall under the provision of Oregon's public records laws, which mandate that information about arrests be made public with very few exceptions.
"As a reporter at the time it was very confusing and frustrating," Francke said. "You like to feel that you understand what records are available and what aren't."
When the case went to court the trial judge ruled that the city was correct in denying access to the records under child abuse laws. The Independent appealed the decision, and Judge Roger DeHoog of the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in the newspaper's favor. DeHoog's opinion found that records of Pippert's arrest should have been released, as they are not collected under the provision of ORS 419B.010 through 419B.050, and rejects all of the city's legal positions.
"After all this time, I'm pleased, gratified and vindicated with the result," attorney Jack Orchard, who represented the Independent in court, said in an email. "The trial judge was well-meaning and actually invited us to appeal. However, the reasoning used to withhold the records was mis-guided. ... Accepting the city position would have created some future mischief (or worse) concerning access to police records."
The City of Salem may still seek reconsideration by the Court of Appeals or a review with the Oregon Supreme Court.