Private college police reports should be public record

By Corey Friedman

When a law is so hazy and imprecise that the state’s highest court can’t decide how to interpret it, all that’s left is for lawmakers to go back to the drawing board.elonpr

Less than a month after Rep. Leo Daughtry introduced a bill to ensure that campus police reports at private colleges are subject to open records laws, the North Carolina Supreme Court said it couldn’t determine whether the state Public Records Act as it’s currently written applies to private campus police.

Justices deadlocked 3-3 because the seventh justice, Barbara Jackson, didn’t hear the case. By default, the tie upholds a wrongheaded ruling of the N.C. Court of Appeals that closes these records to the public.

“The remaining members of the court are equally divided, with three members voting to affirm and three members voting to reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals,” the high court’s March 8 opinion states. “Accordingly, the decision of the Court of Appeals is left undisturbed and stands without precedential value.”

Nick Ochsner, a student journalist at Elon University’s campus television station, sued Elon and Attorney General Roy Cooper when the college police department refused to release information on a student’s March 2010 arrest. Campus police released a bare-bones portion of the incident report, but wouldn’t budge when it came to the officer’s narrative.

In an odious and poorly reasoned opinion, the Court of Appeals ruled that campus police at private colleges aren’t subject to the Public Records Act, which requires police to disclose “the circumstances surrounding an arrest.”

Last month, Daughtry (R-Smithfield) introduced a bill that would subject campus police departments to the same disclosure requirements that county and city law enforcement agencies must follow. Rep. Susan Martin, a Wilson Republican, signed on as a co-sponsor.

House Bill 142 is the best answer to a devastating duet of bad rulings from our state courts. Daughtry and Martin deserve North Carolina residents’ thanks and their fellow lawmakers’ support.

Under current case law, someone charged with a crime at Elon or another of the state’s fine private colleges could be held against his will and hauled off to jail in secret. That’s a frightening prospect, and the General Assembly shouldn’t rest until this obvious oversight is corrected.

Private colleges and universities aren’t subject to public records laws where administrative and academic records are concerned, which is fitting and proper. But campus police departments are an entirely different animal.

Whether taxpayers or private endowments pay campus cops’ salaries, the fact remains that they are exercising a public trust. Campus police aren’t there to catch students who break school rules; they’re officers with full powers of arrest who enforce the state laws of North Carolina.

Like company police departments, campus police are licensed and regulated by the N.C. Department of Justice. If a police-for-hire business paid to patrol private property is subject to the Public Records Act, why should campus police be exempt?

It dumbfounds us that the learned legal scholars on the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court are apparently OK with police investigating clandestine crimes and charging defendants under a shroud of secrecy simply because their paychecks come from a private college. With authority comes accountability, and those empowered to enforce the law should be held to high standards of openness and transparency.

Our esteemed justices dropped the ball when it comes to the public’s right to know about campus crimes. Lawmakers should follow Daughtry’s and Martin’s lead and correct the courts’ mistake.

[Note: This post originally appeared as an editorial in the Wilson Times.]

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