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May 12, 1986



Cooper, Judge, wrote the opinion. Brock, C.j., Fones, Harbison, and Drowota, JJ., concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cooper


This appeal presents the issue of whether the closed investigative file of the Memphis Police Department is available for inspection by the media and the public under T.C.A. § 10-7-503 of the Public Records Act. Both lower courts held that it is, and we affirm.

The file sought to be examined is that of the "Shannon Street Incident" of January 11-12, 1983. Two police officers were called to the residence of Linberg Sanders, 2239 Shannon Street, Memphis, Tennessee. A confrontation occurred between the officers and the occupants of the residence. One officer was taken hostage. The other was seriously wounded but escaped capture. Approximately thirty hours later, police officers stormed the residence. In the shoot-out, seven occupants of the residence were killed. The hostage police officer also was found dead.

The Memphis Police Department immediately began an investigation of the "Shannon Street Incident." Information resulting from the investigation was released to the public in two news conferences held by the police department in January, 1983.

In November, 1984, a reporter for The Commercial Appeal sought to inspect the closed investigative file. When he was denied access to the file, a formal demand was made on the police department by The Commercial Appeal. It too was denied. The Commercial Appeal then filed a petition in the Chancery Court of Shelby County seeking access to the "Shannon Street Incident" file. In the course of the court proceeding, it was brought out that the police investigation had been completed and the file closed, and that no proceedings relative to the "incident" were pending in any criminal court, and none were contemplated. There were two pending civil suits based on the "Shannon Street Incident."

T.C.A. § 10-7-503 opens all state, county, and municipal records and records maintained by the Tennessee performing arts center management corporation for personal inspection by any citizen of Tennessee, "unless otherwise provided by state statute." In addition the statute grants authority to the head of a governmental entity to promulgate rules in accordance with the Tennessee Uniform Administrative Procedures Act "to maintain the confidentiality of records concerning adoption proceedings or records required to be kept confidential by federal statute or regulation as a condition for the receipt of federal funds or for participation in a federally funded program." Other than these two voiced limitations, full access to governmental records is granted every citizen of Tennessee.

Procedure for enforcing this right of access is set forth in T.C.A. § 10-7-505. Where a citizen seeks the aid of the chancery court in obtaining access to governmental records, the state places the burden of proving justification for the denial of access upon the official that denied access. See T.C.A. § 10-7-505(c). The legislature also imposed the requirement that the court, in ruling on a petition for access to governmental records, make written findings of fact and Conclusions of law, and granted the court the power "to exercise full injunctive remedies and relief to secure the purposes and intentions of this section." T.C.A. § 10-7-505 (d). In the same section of the statute the legislature also directed the court to broadly construe the access-to-records statute "so as to give the fullest possible public access to public records." T.C.A. § 10-7-505(d).

In this case the trial Judge found no justification for the denial of access to the investigative file on the "Shannon Street Incident," and the majority of the Court of Appeals agreed with that finding.

Appellants and amici curiae make a three-pronged attack on the holding of the trial court and the Court of Appeals. They insist (1) that an investigative file prepared by a municipal police department is not within the purview of T.C.A. § 10-7-503, (2) that the file is excepted from the effect of the statute by the provisions of T.C.A. §§ 40-15-106 and 40-32-101 (the expungement statutes) and Rule 16 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, and (3) that the disclosure of such a file is contrary to public policy of this state.

The fundamental rule of statutory construction is to ascertain and, if possible, give effect to the intention or purpose of the legislature as expressed in the statute. Worrall v. Kroger Co., 545 S.W.2d 736 (Tenn. 1977). In determining this legislative intent or purpose, "the courts are restricted to the natural and ordinary meaning of the language used by the Legislature within the four corners of the statute, unless an ambiguity requires resort elsewhere to ascertain legislative intent." Austin v. Memphis Publishing Co., 655 S.W.2d 146, 148 (Tenn. 1983).

We find no ambiguity in the statute. In our opinion the holding of the Court of Appeals that the records sought in this case are "records" within the purview of T.C.A. § 10-7-503, comports with the language of the statute and is consistent with the legislative directive in T.C.A. § 10-7-505(d) that the access statutes be construed "so as to give the fullest possible public access to public records." It is also consistent with the interpretation placed on the statute by the court in Board of Education v. Memphis Publishing Co., 585 S.W.2d 629 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1979). See also Cleveland Newspapers, Inc. v. Bradley County Mem. Hosp. Bd. of Dirs., 521 S.W.2d 763 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1981).

T.C.A. § 10-7-503 grants access to all state, county, and municipal records not excepted by state statute or, with very limited application, by rules properly promulgated by the head of a governmental entity. T.C.A. § 10-7-504 identifies several classes of records not subject to inspection by citizens of this state. Included are investigative files of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division of the Department of Safety, and the books, records and other materials in the possession of the Attorney General. Municipal police ...

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