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Court denies the access to investigative file of ongoing rape case


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kwatlington

By Kyle Watlington

In late June of 2013, the Nashville Police Department began an investigation of the rape of a university student that allegedly occurred in a Vanderbilt University dorm on the morning of June 23, 2013. Two months later in August of 2013, a grand jury indicted four members of the Vanderbilt University football team with five counts each of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery. One of the individuals was also charged with unlawful photography and tampering of evidence. On October 2, 2013, the Criminal Court issued an agreed protective order that allowed only the attorneys for the defendants to receive copies of photos and videos taken during the investigation. 

A newspaper reporter wishing to provide more detailed coverage of this news story, made a request to the Police Department asking to be allowed to view all records regarding the investigation of the alleged rape. The Police Department denied this request and informed the reporter that they were not required to provide these records as they are part of an ongoing criminal investigation. As a result of this denial, the newspaper, along with several other news organizations, filed a lawsuit for access to the records under the Tennessee Public Records Act.

Public Records Act
Tennessee citizens have a right to inspect most government records. This right has been recognized by Tennessee courts for more than a century. In 1957, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted the state’s first public records law which documented this right. The purpose of this law, known as the Tennessee Public Records Act, was to give the citizens of Tennessee a tool to hold government officials and agencies accountable by allowing them access to view government records.

Initially, the law was very broad and allowed citizens access to almost all records connected to any official governmental agency. Over the years, a number of exceptions were added to prevent the release of sensitive documents. Examples of the type of records that are now not allowed to be publicly released include medical records, personal information of students at public universities, and the identities of victims in violent sexual crimes. Today, there are more than 300 separate exceptions to the law that prevent the release of sensitive material.

In this lawsuit, the Police Department argued it was not required to give the media access to any of the records requested due to the criminal investigation exception to the Tennessee Public Records Act. The media in turn argued that the named exception only applies to documents made by law enforcement officers in connection with the investigation and does not apply to records created by other parties that are provided to the officers such as DNA reports, forensic tests, and written statements of witnesses created by Vanderbilt University and given to the Police Department.

Eventually the case arrived at the Supreme Court of Tennessee. The supreme court decided the case in favor of the Police Department. The court declared that all requested investigative records fell within an exception of the Tennessee Public Records Act no matter who created the information. According to the court, the purpose of the exception was to protect the defendant’s ability to receive a fair trial and prevent the disclosure of the victim’s personal information detailed in the investigation file. In summary, while a criminal trial is ongoing in Tennessee, the media will likely be unable to obtain investigative records of that case.



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