Pauline D. Sherrer

125 West Ave.
Crossville, TN
(931) 484-5145


The Chronicle is a publication of Newspaper Holdings Inc.


Mike Moser
"I Say"

Published Dec. 17, 2004

Open records study opens dialogue

The Associated Press recently released a series of stories on an audit on compliance with the Tennessee open records law by government agencies across the state including city and county offices in Cumberland County.

While the audit left some local officials feeling they had been portrayed in a less than favorable light, the audit was important and good and gives us an opportunity for dialogue on this issue.

We at the Chronicle have been very fortunate over the years to enjoy a good working rapport with local government officials when it comes to records that we need to keep you informed.

On Nov. 4 or 5 a young lady representing the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government visited local offices. At the sheriff's office she asked the clerk to see copies of reports. The clerk, trying to oblige, asked what kind of reports and the answer was, just reports.

When pressed for a name the report might be filed under, the young lady responded, "Does it matter?" This left the secretary scratching her head and uncertain as to what the auditor was asking. A similar encounter was reported by city police.

The Chronicle, for the most part, does not have trouble obtaining offense and arrest reports from city police and the sheriff's department. It is true, we do not see every report despite a standing request to do so, but records that we do not see are not withheld maliciously or for the sole purpose of keeping someone's name out of the paper.

What we find happening is that sometimes a detective working on a case will have the original offense report in their possession. Sometimes night officers will make an arrest and then take their file to court the following day. Sometimes these reports do not make their way to the media file.

The biggest problem we face is the lack of understanding on how reports involving juveniles are handled. The police department withholds the majority of juvenile arrests reports and most offense reports that involve juveniles, either as a victim or as someone arrested.

That is not what the law says. The law says it shall be illegal to release the name of a juvenile without permission of a juvenile judge. Offense reports where the juvenile is a victim are public records. We believe arrest reports of juveniles are public record but media copies cannot include the juvenile's name or Social Security number.

When it came to the school board, a similar situation took place when records governing school suspensions were sought. A request for copies of student suspensions was denied because the document has the student's name and Social Security number on it.

In both cases, the situation can be easily remedied. A copy of the the report being sought, whether it be suspension report or arrest report, can be made and then the student's protected information simply blacked out. That way, the juvenile is protected and the public is given access to the information that is public record.

In the case of suspension records, one has to wonder why a student's name and Social Security number is on a document that is supposed to be public record.

One conflict with the state open records law lies with accident reports which are under the care and custody of the Tennessee Department of Public Safety. A trooper spokesperson said accident reports are public record despite the age of the driver involved.

This conflicts with the law that protects a juveniles name because the state position on accident reports is that teen drivers are identified. I believe this to be a good interpretation of the law simply because driving is a privilege, not a birth rite.

I once was faced with how to report a head-on collision involving a 16-year-old driver and a 38 year-old motorist, both of whom were charged with drunk driving and equally at fault in this injury-causing crash.

Ohio open records law is similar to Tennessee's and we published both driver's names and their charges.

One misconception we find with the public is the belief that it is against the law to publish a juvenile's name. There is no law governing publication of a juvenile's name. Just a law that prohibits officials from providing the names of juveniles in specified circumstances.

We don't abuse the privilege, however, and weigh each and every circumstance on its own merit.

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Mike Moser is the editor of the Crossville Chronicle. His column is published periodically on Fridays.

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