Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Why closed criminal case files should be public records when no prosecution occurred

Catonya, who has a new blog called "Flying Debris" you should go check out (she writes about politics, home life, police misconduct, and occasionally graces regular readers with a lovely poem), asked in the comments to a recent Grits post for me to explain what new information would be open under HB 767 by Dutton if the bill became law. She thought my explanation made more sense of the legislation than the original post, so I cannot refuse her request that I share the response in full. Here's why Texas needs HB 767:

When the suspect dies pursuant to arrest or commits suicide, the investigative files, DA's files, officer notes, everything is a closed record under current law if the DA or police agency chooses not to disclose it. OTOH, when someone is successfully prosecuted all that information becomes public after the case is closed.

So say an officer shoots someone and a grand jury "no bills" the officer. Before 1996 in Texas the family of the person who was shot could view police and prosecutor files in the case (except for grand jury transcripts, and with certain personal privacy and other exceptions in the law) and see for themselves whether or not they're satisfied with the investigation. Under current law, it's the DA's and police department's discretion what to give up. But often they're the one the citizen requestor is unhappy with.

Same with investigations of suicides, especially in jails and prisons. If the same person were murdered and someone convicted, the files are open. Call it a suicide and say it's a closed case, or even just a murder with no prosecution, the file is closed. That gives HUGE opportunities for coverup, because the single best way to avoid prosecution yourself for misconduct, if you're a cop or a DA, is to simply not pursue charges.

That's when we need open records most! Opening records would probably, in the end, help deflate some of these situations more than secrecy, which just leaves people resentful even when law enforcement did nothing wrong.

Another common complaint comes from people who think police didn't do enough to investigate. If they can see the file for their own closed case they can complain to supervisors or their city council more credibly with better information if they don't think enough has been done.

Basically closed, unprosecuted cases are where most average people would need more records open. When prosecutors win typically everyone is satisfied with the outcome except the defendant, which is fine unless e.g. they're innocent!


Anonymous said...

So basically, closed cases are ones that need to be opened so that the general public can FEEL better about the cases? No matter the reasons the cases currently remain closed.
I sure miss those smilies...you know, the one where I can post a happy face "rolling his eyes".
You need a task force or two to beat on. This stuff is drivel.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No, they need open records in those cases to ID corrupt cops and unethical prosecutors, basically. I can see, though, why an ex-task force officer might object.

800 pound gorilla said...

What! Police not choosing to keep files open involving likely police misconduct? Why would they try to protect colleagues and drinking buddies? This is behavior more typical of gangs! You didn't see our military behaving like this with detention camps for suspected terrorists did we? Surely you don't suggest that police are like criminal gangs that protect their members from outsiders?

Catonya said...

re: Anonymous
such contempt for the concerns of citizens he once vowed to protect and serve. Maybe we should thank him for giving himself as the perfect example for why case files should be open?

Catonya said...

Meant to ask how the State Affairs Committee seemed to respond to 767? Does it's current status (still pending in committee) mean there will be further discussion?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I had to leave befoe it was done, Cat, and just left a card in favor and my written testimony (which I'd posted).

I plan to walk around maybe this afternoon or tomorrow at the capitol and see how the committee members feel about it. If it has support, it would likely be voted out at the next meeting on Tuesday.