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June 16, 2000

Ms. Elaine Hengen
Assistant City Attorney
Office of the city Attorney
The City of El Paso
2 Civic Center Plaza
El Paso, Texas 79901-1196

OR2000-2339

Dear Ms. Hengen:

You ask whether certain information is subject to required public disclosure under chapter 552 of the Government Code. Your request was assigned ID# 136200.

The City of El Paso (the "city") received a request for a specific offense report. You claim that the requested information is excepted from disclosure under sections 552.108 and 552.130 of the Government Code. We have considered the exceptions you claim and reviewed the submitted information.

Section 552.108(a)(1) excepts from disclosure "[i]nformation held by a law enforcement agency or prosecutor that deals with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime . . . if . . . release of the information would interfere with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime[.]" Generally, a governmental body claiming an exception under section 552.108 must reasonably explain, if the information does not supply the explanation on its face, how and why the release of the requested information would interfere with law enforcement. See Gov't Code 552.108(a)(1), (b)(1), .301(e)(1)(A); see also Ex parte Pruitt, 551 S.W.2d 706 (Tex. 1977). You explain that the submitted report pertains to a pending criminal prosecution. Based on this representation, we find that release of the submitted report would interfere with an ongoing criminal case, and therefore, the submitted report is subject to section 552.108(a)(1).

We note, however, that information normally found on the front page of an offense report is generally considered public. See generally Gov't Code 552.108(c); Houston Chronicle Publ'g Co. v. City of Houston, 531 S.W.2d 177 (Tex. Civ. pp.--Houston [14th Dist.] 1975), writ ref'd n.r.e. per curiam, 536 S.W.2d 559 (Tex. 1976); Open Records Decision No. 127 (1976). Thus, the city must release the type of information that is considered to be front page offense report information, even if this information is not actually located on the front page of the submitted report. Although section 552.108(a)(1) authorizes the department to withhold the remaining information from disclosure, you may choose to release all or part of the report that is not otherwise confidential by law. See Gov't Code 552.007.

You appear to argue that the city is entitled to withhold information identifying the complainant pursuant to the informer's privilege. The "informer's privilege," incorporated into the Public Information Act by section 552.101,(1) has long been recognized by Texas courts. See Aguilar v. State, 444 S.W.2d 935, 937 (Tex. Crim. App. 1969); Hawthorne v. State, 10 S.W.2d 724, 725 (Tex. Crim. App. 1928). It protects from disclosure the identities of persons who report activities over which the governmental body has criminal or quasi-criminal law enforcement authority, provided that the subject of the information does not already know the informer's identity. Open Records Decision Nos. 515 at 3 (1988), 208 at 1-2 (1978). The informer's privilege protects the identities of individuals who report violations of statutes to the police or similar law enforcement agencies, as well as those who report violations of statutes with civil or criminal penalties to "administrative officials having a duty of inspection or of law enforcement within their particular spheres." Open Records Decision No. 279 at 2 (1981) (citing Wigmore, Evidence, 2374, at 767 (McNaughton rev. ed. 1961)). The report must be of a violation of a criminal or civil statute. See Open Records Decision Nos. 582 at 2 (1990), 515 at 4-5 (1988).

However, the informer's privilege in this case is essentially trumped by the requirement that front page offense report information must be released. See Gov't Code 552.108(c); Houston Chronicle Publ'g Co. v. City of Houston, 531 S.W.2d 177, 187 (Tex. Civ. App.--Houston [14th Dist.] 1975), writ ref'd n.r.e. per curiam, 536 S.W.2d 559 (Tex. 1976); Open Records Decision No. 127 (1976). In other words, the informer's privilege does not protect from release the identification and description of a complainant that appears on an incident report, because such front page offense report information is generally considered public under Houston Chronicle. Id. Therefore, the only basis for withholding from disclosure the identity and description of a complainant that appears on an incident report, regardless of whether the complainant is an "informant," is a showing that special circumstances exist that trigger common law or constitutional privacy.

Section 552.101 protects information considered confidential under the common law right to privacy. Information is protected by the common law right to privacy if (1) the information contains highly intimate or embarrassing facts the release of which would be highly objectionable to a reasonable person, and (2) the information is not of legitimate concern to the public. Industrial Found. v. Texas Indus. Accident Bd., 540 S.W.2d 668 (Tex. 1976), cert. denied, 430 U.S. 931 (1977). Section 552.101 also incorporates the constitutional right to privacy. The United States Constitution protects two kinds of individual privacy interests. The first interest is an individual's interest in independently making certain important personal decisions about matters that the United States Supreme Court has stated are within the "zones of privacy," as described in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1976) and Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693 (1976). The "zones of privacy" implicated in the individual's interest in independently making certain kinds of decisions include matters related to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, and child rearing and education. The second individual privacy interest involves matters that are outside the zones of privacy but that nevertheless implicate an "individual's interest in non-disclosure or confidentiality." Open Records Decision No. 455 at 4 (1987) (quoting Fadjo v. Coon, 633 F.2d 1172, 1175 (5th Cir. 1981). To determine whether a given situation triggers the constitutional right to privacy, this office applies a balancing test, weighing the individual's interest in privacy against the pubic right to know the information. See Open Records Decision No. 455 at 5 (citing Ramie v. City of Hedwig Village, 765 F.2d 490, 492 (5th Cir. 1985)).

Accordingly, under section 552.101 in conjunction with common law and constitutional privacy, information may be withheld from public disclosure in special circumstances. See Open Records Decision No. 169 (1977). We consider "special circumstances" to refer to a very narrow set of situations in which release of the information would likely cause someone to face "an imminent threat of physical danger." Open Records Decision No. 169 at 6 (1997). Note that special circumstances does not include "a generalized and speculative fear of harassment or retribution." Open Records No. 169 at 6 (1977).

In this case, we do not believe that you have shown special circumstances sufficient to overcome the presumption of public access to the complainant's identity. Consequently, we conclude that the city may not withhold any information that identifies the complainant, such as the complainant's name, address, and telephone number. Therefore, the city may withhold most of the submitted report under section 552.108(a)(1). However, the city must release the "front-page" information, including the information that identifies the complainant.(2)

This letter ruling is limited to the particular records at issue in this request and limited to the facts as presented to us; therefore, this ruling must not be relied upon as a previous determination regarding any other records or any other circumstances.

This ruling triggers important deadlines regarding the rights and responsibilities of the governmental body and of the requestor. For example, governmental bodies are prohibited from asking the attorney general to reconsider this ruling. Gov't Code 552.301(f). If the governmental body wants to challenge this ruling, the governmental body must appeal by filing suit in Travis County within 30 calendar days. Id. 552.324(b). In order to get the full benefit of such an appeal, the governmental body must file suit within 10 calendar days. Id. 552.353(b)(3), (c). If the governmental body does not appeal this ruling and the governmental body does not comply with it, then both the requestor and the attorney general have the right to file suit against the governmental body to enforce this ruling. Id. 552.321(a).

If this ruling requires the governmental body to release all or part of the requested information, the governmental body is responsible for taking the next step. Based on the statute, the attorney general expects that, within 10 calendar days of this ruling, the governmental body will do one of the following three things: 1) release the public records; 2) notify the requestor of the exact day, time, and place that copies of the records will be provided or that the records can be inspected; or 3) notify the requestor of the governmental body's intent to challenge this letter ruling in court. If the governmental body fails to do one of these three things within 10 calendar days of this ruling, then the requestor should report that failure to the attorney general's Open Government Hotline, toll free, at 877/673-6839. The requestor may also file a complaint with the district or county attorney. Id. 552.3215(e).

If this ruling requires or permits the governmental body to withhold all or some of the requested information, the requestor can appeal that decision by suing the governmental body. Id. 552.321(a); Texas Department of Public Safety v. Gilbreath, 842 S.W.2d 408,411 (Tex. App.-Austin 1992, no writ).

If the governmental body, the requestor, or any other person has questions or comments about this ruling, they may contact our office. Although there is no statutory deadline for contacting us, the attorney general prefers to receive any comments within 10 calendar days of the date of this ruling.

Sincerely,

E. Joanna Fitzgerald
Assistant Attorney General
Open Records Division

EJF\nc

Ref: ID# 136200

Encl: Submitted documents

cc: Ms. Blanca Limon
2509 Lake Omega Street
El Paso, Texas 79924
(w/o enclosures)


 

Footnotes

1. Section 552.101 excepts from disclosure "information considered to be confidential by law, either constitutional, statutory, or by judicial decision."

2. Because section 552.108 is dispositive of this matter, we do not address your argument regarding section 552.130 except to note that front page information under section 552.108(c) does not include Texas driver's license numbers, license plate numbers, or vehicle identification numbers.
 

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