PHOENIX — Requests under Arizona's public-records law can be made in advance of the records being created, an appellate court ruled last week in a case involving a dispute between a suburban newspaper and a county sheriff's office.
The unanimous Aug. 16 ruling by a three-judge state Court of Appeals panel also said that while the twice-weekly West Valley View is entitled to receive the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office's press releases under the records law, the sheriff's office doesn't have to provide them by e-mail.
The sheriff's office in 2005 removed the View from the office's e-mail distribution list for press releases, with the public-information officer expressing displeasure that the View hadn't covered story ideas and releases provided by the office.
The newspaper's lawyer twice demanded that the office resume providing its releases, and the newspaper sued when there was no response.
A lawyer for the newspaper did not return a call seeking comment for this story, but a lawyer for the sheriff's office said the ruling had little immediate practical effect because the sheriff's office already makes releases available to the newspaper in a box at a sheriff's facility the same day they're distributed by e-mail.
Also, the sheriff's office plans to start putting all of its press releases on its Web site, attorney Dennis Wilenchik said.
However, Wilenchik said he planned to ask the Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling that the sheriff's office had to pay the newspaper's legal costs in the case.
Wilenchik said he also planned to appeal the ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court. He said the portion about advance requests for records yet to be produced could be troublesome for public agencies to implement.
The Court of Appeals said the trial judge acted reasonably and correctly ordered the sheriff's office to automatically respond to the View's public-records request for all future news releases as they are produced.
"In the view of the sheriff's office, it may require a newspaper that has made known its desire to have copies of each press release issued by the sheriff to somehow discover on its own that a press release has been issued and then make a separate formal request to the sheriff for a copy of each such release. We disagree," Judge Diane M. Johnsen wrote in West Valley View vs. Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, 1 CA-CV 06-0549. Johnsen was a newspaper reporter before she became a lawyer and a judge.
That finding amounts to "new law," Wilenchik said.
It's one thing to ask for press releases that are going to be distributed anyway but it's another matter if somebody asks for any type of future records dealing with individuals or other specific matters that could require agencies to conduct extensive searches, according to Wilenchik.
"That's craziness," he said.
In explaining why it ordered that the newspaper be reimbursed for its legal costs, the Court of Appeals said the sheriff's office acted in bad faith, going beyond being "petty" when it stopped sending releases to the View.