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The Ohio Supreme Court cases that could have big impacts on public records law

A woman stands in front of a podium with news microphones before her.
George Shillcock
Nadine Young speaks to reporters about the police shooting that killed her granddaughter Ta'Kiya Young at the Sunbury Plaza Kroger. Young's case is one of two in front of the Supreme Court that could determine the public's right to know police officers' identities.

The Ohio Supreme Court is considering holding oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging the Columbus Police Department’s decision to withhold the names of eight police officers involved in a 2023 deadly force incident.

That case, and two others in front of the court right now, could have enormous implications for public records law in Ohio and the information shared with the public after police officers use force in the line of duty.

Ideastream Public Media’s Matt Richmond has been following the cases and joined The Ohio Newsroom to discuss the details.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

On the cases in front of the Supreme Court

“There are two using the same legal rationale. One is out of Columbus and one is from the Columbus suburb of Blendon Township. In July, Columbus police were involved in a shootout on I-70. The city withheld eight officers’ names and the segment of the body and dashcam footage that captured the shootout. The paper in Columbus, The Columbus Dispatch, sued for that information.

The Blendon Township case involves the officer who shot and killed Ta’Kiya Young. The officer, whose name is also been withheld, shot Young as she started to pull away. During questioning, Young's mother requested victim’s compensation through the Ohio Victim Justice Center, and when the department refused the center's request for the officer's name, the center's attorney filed the lawsuit on Young's mother's behalf.

In both the cases, the department cited Marsy's Law, a 2017 voter approved constitutional amendment that protects the victim's rights before, during, and after trial. And there's a 2023 state law that expanded those rights to guarantee a right to privacy for victims. Columbus and Blendon Township have taken the position that since the officers were victims, they are protected by these two laws.”

On the officers’ status as victims

“In the Columbus case, the officers were fired at. That makes them victims of felonious assault or attempted murder. In the Blendon Township case, Young starts driving her vehicle very slowly in the direction of the firing officer, and it makes contact with them. So that's vehicular assault. There's nothing in Marsy's Law or in the 2023 update that excludes police officers. So the cities argue they deserve the same protection as anyone else.”

On the plaintiffs’ arguments

“Their arguments cover a few different angles. First, they both argue for the importance of public records, and in this case, that the constitution is not ever used to protect the government from the public, that it's always used to protect against the government taking away rights from the public. But these two governments are invoking the Constitution through Marsy's Law to hinder the public's right to records.

Then, their arguments diverge a little bit. In the Blendon Township case, the plaintiff is arguing the courts should look on a case-by-case basis to decide whether the officer qualifies as a victim.

In the Columbus case, the plaintiffs go further and they argue the police officers can't be categorized as victims, because state law is already full of areas where police officers, agents of the state are given special consideration. The argument is that officers are in a different category as agents of the state than victims protected under state law.

On potential impacts of the rulings

“They could be enormous, depending upon how broad the ruling by the Supreme Court is. You're already seeing other places use this rationale with Marsy's Law.

In Cleveland, police shot at a young woman's car while she was fleeing another car that was shooting at her. The officers’ names were concealed because her car sideswiped the patrol car as it passed.

In Kettering, officials are withholding the names of officers who shot and wounded people in two separate incidents last year.

A ruling for the cities in these cases could make this a legally accepted practice statewide. And the masking of an officer's identity can continue indefinitely. So in ten years, if one of these officers joins a different police department who's promoted into command or named in a civil lawsuit, the public would have real trouble finding out about their histories.

And then there's also a third case at the court from Akron, where eight officers involved in the shooting death of Jayland Walker have not been identified. And in that case, the argument is that the protests that followed Walker's death and some activity on social media threatened the safety of these officers and warranted the concealment of their names.

So, with these two rationales together, the precedent set here could really be expansive when it comes to shielding officers identities.”

Matthew Richmond is a reporter covering police and courts for Ideastream Public Media in Cleveland.