Police Records at Private University Are Public< < Back to
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that the police department at a private central Ohio university is a public office and can be compelled to provide public records.
In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ordered the Otterbein University police chief to produce the criminal records requested by a news editor at a student-run website.
The court determined the university’s police department was established by statute to enforce criminal laws and that function makes the department a public office under the state’s Public Records Act.
Editor Requests Campus Police Records
In January 2014, Anna Schiffbauer, an editor at Otterbein360.com, which covers campus events and news, requested reports of student and non-student criminal cases that had been referred to the Westerville Mayor’s Court. The university’s vice president and student affairs dean, Robert Gatti, denied the request, stating a belief that the private university’s records are not public.
Schiffbauer filed a mandamus action asking the Ohio Supreme Court to order the release of the documents.
University’s Police Department Is a Public Office
In the Ohio Public Records Act, public records are “records kept by any public office,” and a “public office” is defined as “any state agency, public institution, political subdivision, or other organized body, office, agency, institution, or entity established by the laws of this state for the exercise of any function of government.”
According to the court’s per curiam opinion, a private college or university may choose to create a campus police department, but only as provided in R.C. 1713.50(B). The law in part mandates a training program for campus police officers and explains that campus police have the same authority as municipal police officers and county sheriffs.
The court reasoned that Otterbein’s campus police department was established by state law to exercise a government function – specifically, “the basic police power of enforcing laws and maintaining the peace within its jurisdiction.”
“The department is created under a statute for the express purpose of engaging in one of the most fundamental functions of government: the enforcement of criminal laws, which includes power over citizens as necessary for that enforcement,” the opinion stated.
The court issued the peremptory writ ordering the police chief, Larry Banaszak, to release the requested materials.