INDIANA — The victory was hollow.
Justin McLaughlin, a former student at Taylor University in Upland, received the result of his second complaint to the state public access counselor Feb. 18 in his quest to obtain police records from his alma mater. The Grant County Sheriff’s Office would have to release the records, the counselor decided–if the office had them.
“There are no records to turn over,” said Grant County Chief Deputy James Lugar. “The records search shows there was no record here to begin with because we don’t police Taylor University. They have their own police.”
McLaughlin filed his first complaint with the public access counselor against the university in October 2003, seeking police reports describing incidents of vandalism, Internet fraud and theft at the school of communication from 2001 to 2003. The state public access counselor at the time, Michael Hurst, decided that Taylor University did not have to turn over its records because it is a private school. McLaughlin filed a second complaint with the public access counselor against the sheriff’s office in January.
The state public access counselor interprets the law and issues advisory warnings to agencies who fail to properly publicize public records.
McLaughlin filed his first complaint because he said campus police failed to publicize the incidents properly.
“The police didn’t make any incident reports,” he said. “Even though they were aware of [the incidents], they didn’t file the appropriate records.”
After receiving the results of his first complaint in November 2003, McLaughlin contacted the county sheriff’s office to obtain any relevant records. County police records are subject to the state public access laws.
“They never responded to my request,” he said. “There were over a year of e-mails and phone calls and they never responded until I filed the complaint.”
Lugar said McLaughlin did not convey his request through appropriate channels.
“He sent the stuff in at strange times and dates–weekends when we weren’t here,” Lugar said. “He sent it in at a time when we were getting flooded with e-mail [scams requesting information used in identity theft]. Rather than contacting [the records department], he called the sheriff’s office directly. The aide was told, ‘Anything you don’t recognize, don’t answer it because it will put a virus on our computer’.”
Karen Davis, now the state public access counselor, found that the “Grant County Sheriff’s Department failed to respond timely to [McLaughlin’s] request for records,” but that the office did not possess any relevant records.
“It’s a moot point,” Davis said. “They didn’t maintain that record.”
Davis said her office has no power to enforce the release of records. McLaughlin’s sole recourse is a lawsuit against the university, she said.
“[McLaughlin] could use [the decision] to get attorney fees and reasonable expenses on litigation following a hearing if they filed a lawsuit,” Davis said.
McLaughlin said he has contacted a recent law school graduate interested in taking the case once he has passed the bar exam.
–By Kate Campbell
Read previous coverage
- Former student says Ind. university withheld campus crime records News Flash, 10/24/2003
- Ind. official says private university’s police are not subject to open-records law News Flash, 12/02/2003