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A Better Partnership
September 25, 2014

COA holds that City must release video of police assault under FOIA

In Rataj v. City of Romulus, No. 315669, the Court of Appeals held that the City of Romulus must release video of a police assault on an individual and the related incident report because they are both public records that are not exempted under any provision of the Freedom of Information Act.  In August of 2012, a Romulus police officer assaulted a handcuffed arrestee who had spit on the officer and used a racial slur.  The assault was captured on video. 
 
Rataj, an attorney who was also involved in a federal whistleblower lawsuit against the police department, filed a FOIA request for all records related to the assault, including any internal reports and video recordings.  The Romulus Police Department provided a redacted incident report, and identified the officers on duty at the time.  The department refused to release the video and an unredacted version of the report, citing a request of the assault victim.  The city claimed the records were exempt from FOIA as police personnel records, records related to departmental discipline, and records whose disclosure “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.”
 
The Court of Appeals found that the video and the incident report were “public records” under FOIA and were not exempt from disclosure.  The statute provides for nondisclosure of “information of a personal nature if public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.”  The court found that embarrassing information, such as a recording of an individual spitting on a police officer and using a racial slur, falls under the definition of “of a personal nature.”  Next, the public interest in disclosure of the officer’s behavior outweighed the victim’s privacy interest.  Furthermore, the motivation of the party requesting the records was irrelevant.
 
As for the incident report: the names of the victim and the officer were subject to disclosure, but the home addresses, birth dates, and telephone numbers were not.  Personal information such as phone numbers and addresses “typically constitute information of a personal nature within the meaning of the privacy exemption” and public disclosure of the information does not serve FOIA’s purpose.

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