NC court split on whether private-college police records are public

ablythe@newsobserver.comMarch 8, 2013 

— Court split on whether private-school police records are public

The state Supreme Court issued a divided opinion Friday on whether police records at North Carolina’s private colleges are public records.

At issue was whether Elon University, a private school in Alamance County, was required by law to release campus police records to a student journalist.

The case, which could have determined whether campus police at private colleges had to be as transparent as their peers in municipal law enforcement, stemmed from the arrest of a 19-year-old Elon University student in 2010 for underage drinking and resisting an officer.

Nick Ochsner, a reporter for an Elon television news program, asked the university’s police chief for a copy of the arrest record. The document said nothing about how the student was alleged to have resisted arrest, nor did it say whether the officer had to chase him down.

The campus police official contended he was not obligated to produce any additional details because, as part of a private university, his department did not fall within the bailiwick of government agencies required to turn over such records on request.

Ochsner filed a lawsuit contending that Elon police should be subject to the law because having the lawful authority to arrest someone was a government power. Attorneys for the private university argued otherwise.

Elon’s arguments are rooted in interpretations of a 2005 state law that empowered campus police to enforce laws and investigate crimes.

While many of their powers are similar to municipal law enforcers, there also are differences, such as the liability insurance coverage for personal injury and property damage required of them.

Ochsner lost in Superior Court and in the state Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel unanimously ruled against his claim.

After hearing arguments in the case in February, the state Supreme Court left the issue ambiguous.

Justice Barbara Jackson took no part in consideration of the case, according to the opinion released Friday, but there was no elaboration on why she refrained.

The remaining justices split 3-3.

Because of that, the state Court of Appeals ruling stands and sets no precedent on the larger issue.

The Supreme Court’s failure to resolve the issue comes several days after North Carolina legislators began work on a bill that would make campus police at private colleges as transparent about arrests and emergency calls as their peers at public universities and municipal law enforcement agencies. A House committee approved legislation Wednesday to make campus police departments at private colleges produce public records upon request.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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