Times Picayune
Andy Grimm
July 25, 2014

The New Orleans Police Department must pay $20,000 in legal bills and fees for withholding police reports, a court of appeal has ruled.

An employee with the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center in 2011 requested reports and investigation records related to a criminal investigation, touching off a battle over public records. Ethan Brown, who was identified in court records as a journalist with the legal group that assists in death penalty defense, eventually won access to the files — except those the department claimed were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. And a three-judge panel of Louisiana’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeal last week ordered the NOPD to pay all of his legal bills.

It’s unclear if the city plans to appeal. Attorneys for the city did not respond to a request for comment from NOLA.com | The Times Picayune.

The lawsuit says the records request was related to Aaron Harvey, who is dead. A man by the same name was shot dead in 2007 on a Bywater street corner after a fight in a downtown bar, but the court records do not say if that’s the same person who was the subject of the records request.

Brown argued that since the files he wanted were related to a dead person, the NOPD could not claim the files were exempt from release because of possible future litigation.

After Brown initially made the request, the department said Brown was entitled to initial reports involving Harvey in a handful of cases, but not supplemental reports. Eventually, as Brown pressed to see even those records the NOPD had said were public, the NOPD stopped responding to his emails, and Brown filed suit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court.

A judge ruled in 2012 that Brown was entitled to the initial reports and all reports on a case in which Harvey had been convicted, and awarded Brown $500 for court fees. Brown appealed to the 4th Circuit in 2012 seeking access to all the files, and the court ruled that he was entitled to all of the records he requested. There are times, the unanimous panel said, when supplemental reports can be made public.

The trial court awarded Brown $1,400 in damages, and Brown appealed again to get the full amount of his costs, which totaled about $17,000, and punitive damages. The court awarded Brown at total of $20,344 for court costs and fees.

The ruling comes after NOPD in November was ordered to pay more than $8,000 after improperly denying a records request from the Innocence Project New Orleans, a not-for-profit legal group.