When a police officer is charged with a crime, the public has a right to know what happened.
That’s not just our opinion. It’s the opinion of the Montana Supreme Court, which concluded almost 25 years ago that “the position of public trust held by a police officer alleged to have committed a criminal act, albeit while off duty, was such that there existed a compelling state interest in the release of the investigative information surrounding the incident.”
The law clearly requires this information to be released, and for good reason. The public needs to know whether they can trust the people who have been given the power to take away their freedom or their life.
So what does it take to get it? Apparently a good attorney, a lawsuit, six months and a fat check.
At least that was our experience, after we requested the investigative information regarding an off-duty Helena police officer charged with domestic assault and the city of Helena responded by taking us to court.
Luckily, we had the time and the means to jump through all the legal hoops. And the investigative information that a district judge eventually ordered the city to release was neither time-sensitive nor even that interesting in this case.
But if we are having this much trouble enforcing the right to know guaranteed by case law, state statutes and the Montana Constitution, other Montana citizens probably are, too.
And we can’t help but wonder: What about the people who can’t afford to hire an attorney or don’t know how to navigate the legal system? What if they need the records quickly to save their car, house or job? What information is being hidden from Montanans who just can’t deal with the rigmarole?
We know we harp on government transparency issues a lot. But we want people to remember examples like this when local and state officials talk about how accountable they are to the public.
Sunshine laws are not just there for the newspaper. They are there for everyone.
We just wish they worked for everyone.