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Jetmore v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

October 12, 2017

BRADLEY JETMORE
v.
METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT OF NASHVILLE & DAVIDSON COUNTY, TENNESSEE

          Session August 29, 2017

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Davidson County No. 16-418-IV Robert E. Lee Davies, Senior Judge.

         A petitioner seeking to inspect and obtain copies of traffic accident reports prepared by the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department ("MNPD") "promptly, " as required by the Tennessee Public Records Act ("TPRA" or "the Act"), filed a petition for injunctive relief. The trial court granted the petitioner the relief requested, and the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County ("Metro") appealed. We affirm the trial court's judgment.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed as Modified, and Remanded.

          Jonathan Barrett Cooper, J. Brooks Fox, and Jennifer Bonilla Moreno, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.

          Douglas Ray Pierce and Kyle David Watlington, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Bradley Jetmore.

          Andy D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and Richard H. Dinkins, J., joined.

          OPINION

          ANDY D. BENNETT, JUDGE.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         This case concerns the right of an individual to obtain traffic accident reports "promptly" from Metro and implicates the TPRA, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 10-7-101‒702. The primary section of the TPRA at issue in this case is Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-503(a)(2)(B), which provides:

The custodian of a public record or the custodian's designee shall promptly make available for inspection any public record not specifically exempt from disclosure. In the event it is not practicable for the record to be promptly available for inspection, the custodian shall, within seven (7) business days:
(i) Make the information available to the requestor;
(ii) Deny the request in writing or by completing a records request response form developed by the office of open records counsel. The response shall include the basis for the denial; or
(iii) Furnish the requestor a completed records request response form developed by the office of open records counsel stating the time reasonably necessary to produce the record or information.

         Bradley Jetmore filed a petition in April 2016 in an effort to require Metro to provide him "prompt access to inspect traffic accident reports" that Metro creates and maintains.[1] Mr. Jetmore asserted that he has regularly and routinely requested traffic accident reports for years and that, until the fall of 2015, Metro provided him with prompt access to these reports. Beginning in December 2015, Mr. Jetmore alleged, Metro stopped providing prompt inspection of these records. As a result, Mr. Jetmore began requesting copies of current accident reports. In response to his requests for copies, Mr. Jetmore alleged, Metro has, "with regularity, intentionally and willfully ignored, denied, and/or delayed the production of these . . . records beyond the limit established by the Public Records Act."

         Mr. Jetmore stated that beginning in March 2016, Metro resumed its practice of making accident reports available for inspection. However, the reports Metro was making available were as much as three weeks old when, for many years, Metro regularly made reports available that were no more than two or three days old. With regard to his request for copies of the reports, Mr. Jetmore alleged that Metro instituted an unlawful policy whereby only copies of three reports would be provided on the day of a request, with the remainder to be provided at some later date. The relief Mr. Jetmore sought in his petition included an injunction requiring Metro to make its records available for inspection promptly, as it did for many years, and to produce copies of requested documents promptly.

         Metro moved to dismiss Mr. Jetmore's petition pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6), arguing that Mr. Jetmore failed to state a claim for which relief could be provided. Metro contended that (1) the TPRA requires records to be made available for public inspection promptly, but not immediately; (2) the TPRA permits a custodian of records to adopt reasonable rules governing the making of copies of public records; and (3) a record custodian is not required to produce public records in the specific manner in which a member of the public may request. Metro explained that it stores its traffic accident reports in an electronic database called TITAN ("Tennessee Integrated Traffic Analysis Network") that is maintained by the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Metro did not explain how its use of TITAN impacts its ability to allow inspections or provide copies of records promptly. Mr. Jetmore opposed Metro's motion to dismiss and requested a show cause hearing in accordance with Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-505(b).

         The trial court denied Metro's motion to dismiss and scheduled a hearing to be held in July 2016 at which Metro was to show cause why Mr. Jetmore's petition should not be granted. In support of its position that Metro was operating within the guidelines of the TPRA, Metro submitted a declaration by Jason Starling, a captain in the MNPD and Central Records Division Manager. Mr. Starling explained that the MNPD is required to redact certain information from the public records it maintains before it can release any records to the public. The information that must be redacted includes driver's license numbers, social security numbers, and juveniles' names and identities. MNPD central records staff manually redact this information from traffic accident reports by opening each document in a software program and selecting the protected information, which is then electronically redacted.

         In his declaration, Mr. Starling explained how traffic accident reports are created and finalized. MNPD patrol officers who investigate traffic accidents draft accident reports in TITAN, and the officers usually draft these reports during the shift in which the accident occurs. Supervising officers generally work the same hours as the officers they supervise, and a supervisor typically reviews the accident reports drafted during a shift before the end of the shift. The supervisor either approves and submits the report into the TITAN database or rejects the report and sends it back to the officer for revisions. An accident report does not become final until the supervising officer submits the report into TITAN.

         The Central Records Division's administrative office and administrative compliance training unit are responsible for printing copies of all accident reports, and the individuals who work there operate the print shop. According to Mr. Starling, print shop employees log into TITAN each business day and search for reports on accidents that occurred two to three days earlier, with the corresponding reports submitted into TITAN by 11:59 p.m. on the previous business day. "For example, " Mr. Starling explained, "on Thursday, staff would generally search for reports on all accidents that occurred on Monday, with their corresponding reports being submitted no later than 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday." Once the print shop employees identify the finalized accident reports in TITAN from the previous two or three days, they initiate the electronic redaction process.

         Mr. Starling then explained how the accident reports are made available for public inspection:

Each business day, the set of reports that have been reviewed, redacted and printed are picked up by a North Precinct officer and transported to the North Precinct. The reports are transported to the North Precinct in the afternoon or evening, by an officer working the B or C detail shift. Once at the North Precinct, the reports are available for public inspection during business hours. This process ensures that most accident reports are available for public inspection from the Records division within 72 hours after the report is submitted into TITAN by the supervising officer.

         Mr. Starling described the process for obtaining copies of accident reports:

Private citizens may request copies of traffic accident reports at the public service counter. . . . Requests for copies of three (3) or fewer traffic accident reports may be made in writing or in person at the public service counter. If a private citizen requests copies of three (3) or fewer traffic accident reports, the reports are reviewed, redacted and printed while the requestor waits, and thus provided immediately upon request, or "on-demand."

         Mr. Starling then explained that if an individual wants more than three reports of any kind, the individual is required to fill out a particular form referred to as MNPD Form 720. Mr. Starling continued:

In accordance with Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-503(a)(2)(B), if MNPD is unable to process a request for copies of records within seven (7) business days, a notification of denial or letter advising of the approximate date that the request will be fulfilled will be provided within seven business days. The current MNPD Form 720, revised in June 2015, informs customers that MNPD has seven (7) business days to process all requests.
The MNPD policy allows for the processing of large-volume requests during evening and overnight shifts. This policy of processing the larger printing and copying requests during off-peak hours allows the Records Division to allocate its limited resources more efficiently and process all records requests in an accurate and timely manner.

         The trial court held the show cause hearing on July 14, 2016. No live testimony was offered at the hearing. Instead, the court heard arguments from the lawyers representing Metro and Mr. Jetmore based on declarations that had been filed by the parties in support of their positions. The trial court entered a Memorandum and Order on August 19, 2016, granting Mr. Jetmore the relief he sought. The trial court's findings of fact that are relevant to this appeal regarding the public's inspection of accident reports include the following:

Paragraph 9 of the Verified Complaint alleges that for well over two decades, Metro provided access to inspect traffic accident reports daily during normal business hours; that Metro would produce each day a folder of traffic accident reports released for public inspection by the mid-morning hour; that these reports were almost exclusively for accidents which had occurred within the last two to three days (unless it was on a Monday when the reports from the end of the prior week would be released). In its Answer, Metro does not deny these specific factual allegations. Likewise, neither in his deposition nor in any of his declarations does Captain Starling deny this past course of conduct by Metro for many years. At some point and time within the last twenty years, these reports were made available for inspection at the North Precinct.
. . ..
Each business day the set of accident reports that have been reviewed and redacted are picked up by a North Precinct officer and transported to the North Precinct. The reports are transported to the North Precinct in the afternoon or evening. Once at the North Precinct, the ...

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