Changes to the Public Records Request Laws are a Potential Roadblock to Government Transparency
Louisiana’s public records statutes are designed to facilitate, rather than hinder, public access to records. In enacting these statutes, the legislature recognized that the public has a right to know about the decisions and deliberations that are part of the policy-making process. Unfortunately, a bill that would annihilate public access to government records is currently being considered by the Louisiana legislature.
The bill was introduced as a simple modification to the statute pertaining to footage from an officer’s body camera, La. R. S. § 44:3. Currently, the law exempts video recordings from body cameras from disclosure if they violate an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy. The proposed change would extend the exemption to video captured from dash-mounted cameras.
The characterization of this measure being a “simple fix” is disingenuous. Under current law, a person denied access to public records can sue the custodian (entity that holds the records) and shall be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees and litigation costs if a judge finds in the requester’s favor. Likewise, if a public body or official sues the requester and the requester prevails, he or she shall be awarded attorney’s fees and costs. The proposed legislation would change the criteria for a requester being awarded attorney’s fees and costs to if the records were denied based on an exception and if the custodian had no reasonable basis for denial.
The real issue is the changes to this section proposed by the bill would apply to all public records, not just body or dash camera footage. It would affect members of the public requesting police reports, information on investigations by public bodies, and accounting of taxpayer dollars.
By eliminating the award of attorney’s fees and costs and requiring the requestor to show unreasonableness, this bill does away with the only enforcement mechanism available to the public. Current law is flimsy enough; judges typically award only a fraction of the attorney’s fees and costs requested by prevailing parties. Doing away with the enforcement provision could set members of the public—taxpayers—back thousands of dollars out of pocket.
Eliminating the enforcement statute is another roadblock to transparency. Louisiana can—and does—sue citizens who request public records. The state uses these lawsuits to chill or silence those who request records they are entitled to see—at taxpayer expense.
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