Can the City of Taylor keep the press from accessing documents in an excessive-force lawsuit filed against it and its police officers? So far, the answer is “yes.”
In 2002, Tina Hayes sued Taylor and several officers, alleging brutality, false arrest and other illegal acts.
Last summer she asked the city to turn over citizen complaints, internal investigations and other records that might reveal patterns of excessive force and the city’s failure to address it, according to Cynthia Heenan, Hayes’ attorney. Last month, at the city’s request, U.S. District Court Magistrate Virginia Morgan issued a protective order prohibiting Hayes from sharing the information — or any case-related records — with the press.
“The magistrate made a decision in their favor based on the fact that I gave Metro Times access to information that we obtained in discovery,” says Heenan. “The magistrate ruled that she doesn’t approve of that kind of media attention.”
Metro Times published a story about lawsuits filed against Taylor police officers and the city last year (“Taking on Taylor,” July 30, 2003); Heenan’s law firm and another attorney provided this here rag with information about the cases.
Last week, Heenan asked U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O’Meara, who is presiding over the case, to nullify the order. (Magistrate rulings are subject to the district court judge’s review.)
Attorney Gina Puzzuoli, who represents Taylor and its officers, says Hayes’ lawsuit has no merit and the protective order prevents her from sharing false claims about the officers with the press.
“In the past we had this problem with plaintiff’s attorney submitting information not only to you, but to others in these cases when it is our position that they [the lawsuits] are frivolous,” Puzzuoli tells News Hits. “They are putting out these allegations and so far none have held up in court.”
Of five lawsuits Heenan’s firm and another attorney filed against Taylor and its police officers, three have been dismissed. The other two are still pending.
Among the cases dismissed was one filed by Randy Schliewe, who accused Taylor police officers of excessive force and failing to provide him with medical attention. Schliewe obtained a police station videotape of the alleged abuse, which was provided to Metro Times. U.S. District Court Judge Bernard A. Friedman dismissed the case last month.
“The judge said it is clear from this video there was no excessive force,” says Puzzuoli. “And the court further found there was no denial of medical treatment.
“So there are a lot of allegations that are baseless.”
Attorney Herschel Fink, an expert on media law, says the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that district courts should be “wary” of protective orders and must determine if there is a “proper reason” to permit them.
Fink says repeated complaints about a specific police officer or agency are good reasons to reject a request for a protective order, since public interest outweighs nondisclosure.
For the same reason, Fink says, the public also would have a good chance of obtaining the protected information in the Hayes case under the Freedom of Information Act.
But ultimately, “Each case is governed by the facts,” he says.
Last year, Metro Times filed an FOIA request with Taylor seeking all citizen complaints accusing officers of excessive force and investigations of the complaints from 1999 to 2003. The city refused to provide this material, claiming it is exempt from releasing it under the state law.
O’Meara is expected to rule on the protective order later this month.Contact News Hits at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]