Thursday, February 07, 2008

Police Records

A lot of people are surprised when they walk into the police department to get a copy of a police report and I tell them they can’t have it.

“What?” they sputter. “I was the one arrested! Why can’t I have my report?”

I calmly and politely explain that police reports are not, contrary to popular opinion, public records, especially when there is an arrest involved. Even the arrestee’s attorney is not privileged to see the report before the preliminary hearing. Sometimes the arresting officer will let the defense attorney view the report at the prelim, but he doesn’t have to do so. If the charges are waived to court, the officer will prepare a pre-trial packet containing all pertinent documents which is then sent to the district attorney’s office. The defense will get a copy of the report and other documents from the DA’s office during this phase (known as discovery).

There are other types of reports I can’t release. Our department has a policy that we won’t release any reports involving domestics or child custody issues. One reason for this is sometimes one party will change the report or cut out things to suit themselves. (The police chief in a neighboring jurisdiction who was going through a nasty divorce, was fired last year for changing one of his own reports.) Or they want to dispute what is in the report (“I never said that!” or “That’s not what happened!”) We require a court order or a subpoena and release the report directly to the attorney.

Come to think about it, there’s not much you CAN have. Let’s say the police showed up at your neighbor’s house at three in the morning and the next day you show up and ask for the report. Nope, sorry. For privacy reasons, we can’t even tell you WHY the police were there. And because of the ridiculous HIPAA regulations, when the police go on an EMS call, they can’t even write what was wrong with the patient on the police report. All they’re permitted to write is that the person was transported to the hospital.

Every once in awhile we’ll have a parent come in after their child has been involved in an incident and ask for a copy of a report. The answer is always no. Juvenile records are sealed—period. Even if there’s no arrest, if the report has a juvenile’s information we aren’t permitted to give it to anyone—not even a parent.

Occasionally we’ll release a redacted report when an insurance company or similar entity needs a copy of a report that we normally wouldn’t give out. When we redact a report we take a black permanent marker and black out any identifying information that the insurance company doesn’t need. It doesn’t look very pretty, but it serves its purpose.

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