March 9, 2014
Dear Commissioner Specia:
You ask six questions concerning the applicability of section 552.1085 of the Government Code. Section 552.1085 is an exception to required public disclosure in the Public Information Act (the “PIA”) for certain sensitive crime scene images obtained from a law enforcement agency and contained in child abuse or neglect case records of the Department of Family and Protective Services (the “Department”).1As background, the Department conducts certain child abuse or neglect investigations jointly with an appropriate state or local law enforcement agency. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 261.301(a), (f), (h) (West 2014); Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 2.27(a) (West Supp. 2013). In the course of these joint investigations, a law enforcement agency must furnish to the Department information about alleged child abuse or neglect committed by a person responsible for the child’s care, custody, or welfare. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. §§ 261.105(a), .301(a) (West 2014); see alsoTex. Hum. Res. Code Ann. § 40.0524(b) (West 2013) (permitting members of multidisciplinary teams to exchange information relating to report of child abuse or neglect as necessary to facilitate thorough investigation). You first ask:
1. In the event the Department engaged in a joint investigation with a law enforcement agency and copies of photographs taken at a crime scene during that joint investigation are stored in the Department’s records, do the Department’s rules [adopted pursuant to Family Code section 261.201(a) in chapter 700 of title 40 of the Texas Administrative Code] concerning access to photographs that are part of a child abuse or neglect case file control, or is access to the photographs requested from the Department subject to the requirements of [s]ection 552.1085 [of the] Government Code?
Request Letter at 1 (footnotes deleted).
In construing a statute, a court first determines and gives effect to the Legislature’s intent. Tex. Dep’t of Protective & Regulatory Servs. v. Mega Child Care, Inc., 145 S.W.3d 170, 176 (Tex. 2004). Courts ascertain that intent first from the statute’s language. Traxler v. Entergy Gulf States, Inc., 376 S.W.3d 742, 747 (Tex. 2012). With this principle in mind, we examine the relevant statutory provisions. The PIA generally makes information in the possession of a governmental body, such as the Department, available to the public upon written request. See Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 552.021 (West 2012); see also id. §§ 552.002(a) (West Supp. 2013) (defining “public information”), .003(1)(A) (defining “governmental body”). The PIA contains numerous exceptions to the general rule of required public disclosure, one of which is section 552.1085, which became effective September 1, 2013. See Act of May 22, 2013, 83rd Leg., R.S., ch. 1360, §§ 1, 3, 2013 Tex. Gen. Laws 3608, 3609 (“Senate Bill 1512).
Subsection 552.1085(c) of the Government Code excepts from required public disclosure a “sensitive crime scene image” and provides as follows:
(c) A sensitive crime scene image in the custody of a governmental body is confidential and excepted from the requirements of Section 552.021 and a governmental body may not permit a person to view or copy the image except as provided by this section. This section applies to any sensitive crime scene image regardless of the date that the image was taken or recorded.
Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 552.1085(c) (West Supp. 2013). A “sensitive crime scene image” means “a photograph or video recording taken at a crime scene, contained in or part of a closed criminal case, that depicts a deceased person in a state of dismemberment, decapitation, or similar mutilation or that depicts the deceased person’s genitalia.” Id. § 552.1085(a)(6). Subsection 552.1085(d) states certain categories of persons may view or copy a sensitive crime scene image in the possession of a governmental body. Id. § 552.1085(d). While subsection 552.1085(d) permits certain requestors to view or copy a sensitive crime scene image in the possession of a governmental body, a governmental body may assert another exception under the PIA or another law to exempt the disclosure of an image to a person identified in subsection (d). Id. § 552.1085(e).
You question whether the disclosure obligations of section 552.1085 apply to crime scene photographs held by the Department under chapter 261 of the Family Code.2 Subsection 261.201(a) of the Family Code makes “confidential” and “not subject to public release under Chapter 552, Government Code”: (1) a report of alleged or suspected abuse or neglect made under chapter 261 of the Family Code; and (2) the files, reports, records, communications, audiotapes, videotapes, and working papers used or developed in an investigation under chapter 261 or in providing services as a result of an investigation.3 Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 261.201(a) (West 2014). Section 261.203 of the Family Code requires, on request, the Department’s public release of specific information at different stages of its investigation of a child fatality. Id. § 261.203. The information subject to required public release under section 261.203 does not include a photograph of the deceased child. See id. Therefore, a sensitive crime scene image in the Department’s child abuse or neglect case records is “confidential” under subsection 261.201(a) of the Family Code. Id. § 261.201(a); see 40 Tex. Admin. Code § 700.202(1) (2014) (defining “case records”). As such, these images are excepted from required public disclosure under Government Code section 552.101, an exception in the PIA to required public disclosure of requested information “considered to be confidential by law,” including information made confidential by statute. Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 552.101 (West 2012); see Doe v. Tarrant Cnty. Dist. Attorney’s Office, 269 S.W.3d 147, 155 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2008, no pet.) (“By expressly exempting information within the scope of section 261.201 from the scope of the [PIA], the legislature imposed on the governmental body a duty to maintain the confidentiality of that information.”).4
The information made confidential by subsection 261.201(a) must be disclosed “as provided by Section 261.203 and “may be disclosed only for purposes consistent with [the Family Code] and applicable federal or state law or under rules adopted by an investigating agency.” See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 261.201(a) (West 2014) (emphasis added). The Legislature vested the Department with authority to decide the permissible circumstances for release of its records of child abuse and neglect investigations by requiring that release of such records be only for purposes consistent with the Family Code and granting the Department, as the investigating agency, the authority to promulgate rules permitting the release of its investigation records.5Id
The Legislature specifically addressed the general public’s right to Department case file information about a child fatality and limited that right to the information listed in section 261.203. Id. §§ 261.201, .203. S.B. 1512 amended the law on what information governmental bodies must disclose under the PIA, not what information the Department may or must disclose under the Family Code and Department rules. Act of May 22, 2013, 83rd Leg., R.S., ch. 1360, §§ 1, 3, 2013 Tex. Gen. Laws 3608, 3609. Under well-established canons of statutory construction, a statute that speaks to a specific circumstance is controlling in the case of a conflict with a statute of more general applicability. See Horizon/CMS Healthcare Corp. v. Auld, 34 S.W.3d 887, 901 (Tex. 2000) (recognizing “the traditional statutory construction principle that the more specific statute controls over the more general”); Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 311.026(b) (West 2013). Thus, the Legislature’s specific instructions to the Department regarding materials covered by Family Code subsection 261.201(a) control in the case of a conflict with the general provisions regarding all crime scene photographs found in section 552.1085 of the Government Code. In answer to your first question, the Legislature intended the Family Code and the Department’s rules adopted thereunder to govern the confidentiality and release of photographs in child abuse and neglect case file records and, furthermore, did not intend sensitive crime scene photographs covered by subsection 261.201(a) of the Family Code to be subject to the requirements of section 552.1085 of the Government Code.
In light of this conclusion, we need not address your remaining questions.
The Legislature intended subsection 261.201(a) of the Family Code to govern the confidentiality and release of photographs in child abuse and neglect case file records of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and, furthermore, did not intend sensitive crime scene photographs covered by subsection 261.201(a) to be subject to the general requirements of section 552.1085 of the Government Code.
DANIEL T. HODGE
First Assistant Attorney General
JAMES D. BLACKLOCK
Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel
Chief, Open Records Division
Assistant Attorney General
Open Records Division