Student's suit against N.C. university seeks to open private campus police records

NORTH CAROLINA — Nick Ochsner may have already walked across the stage, but he is stillfighting Elon University’s decision to withhold information about an on-campusarrest.

Ochsner, reporting forcampus TV production Phoenix14News, was denied access to the facts andcircumstances surrounding the March 2010 arrest of another student.

According to his lawyer,Ashley Perkinson, Ochsner was given “skeletal information” after submitting apublic records request to Elon’s Campus Safety and Police Department.

Ochsner requested thecomplete incident report from campus police.

After several denials, thecampus police department released an incident report that included name, date,location, charge and bond amount.

“They gave him the bareminimum information, nothing really substantive. He was looking primarily forthe facts and circumstances of the arrest,” Perkinson said.

Elon is a private universityfounded by what is now the United Church of Christ.

Perkinson requested moreinformation from campus police about the student’s arrest on Ochsner’s behalf.The department denied the request.

Perkinson then filed apublic records request with the Attorney General’s office, which denied therequest stating it did not have any of the information about the arrest.

Elon University and NorthCarolina Attorney General Roy Cooper are named as defendants in Ochsner’s lawsuitfiled on April 12.

The official complaint citesa North Carolina statute that names the Attorney General the “legal custodian of all books, papers, documents, orother records and property,” of campus police records filed with the CampusPolice Program within the Attorney General’s office.

Inhis public records request filed with campus police, Ochsner argues that “theElon Campus Police Department is subject to the Public Records Law because [thelaw] defines ‘public law enforcement agencies’ as all law enforcement agenciescommissioned by the state attorney general. Thus, the law covers policedepartments at private colleges and universities as well as those at statecolleges and universities.”

Aspokeswoman for Cooper said the Attorney General’s office does not comment onpending litigation.

However,according to a letter attached to Ochsner’s complaint and written by MarvinClark, company police administrator for the Attorney General’s office, “recordsof calls for service, arrest reports, and reports of investigation are theresponsibility of each company or campus police agency.”

TheAttorney General’s office maintains records relating to police agencies’certification and campus police officer commission files, according to Clark’sletter.

Ina statement, Elon spokesman Dan Anderson said the university believes it is notbound to release any information but chose to release the incident reportvoluntarily.

“Elon Universityunderstands that North Carolina law does not require independent universitiesand their campus safety and police forces to release all of their detailedcriminal investigation records or notes,” the statement reads.

Frank LoMonte, executivedirector of the Student Press Law Center, said that campus police departmentsholding arrest power are answerable to public records law, and should be as amatter of oversight and accountability.

“If you have anarrest power given by the state, then the law is pretty clear that your actionsinvolving that power are public records. People are starting to realize thatprivate police forces are incredibly powerful and they could be totallytrustworthy, but they still need to be watched,” LoMonte said.

“Thepower to arrest someone is one of the greatest powers we entrust to a limitednumber of officials. The way you manage that power is paramount — no one shouldbe able to arrest a person without being held responsible for how or why thatwas done.”

Perkinsonsaid Ochsner’s lawsuit is an attempt to clear hazy public records law andclearly define what information private universities are required to release.

“Theyhave provided some information, but if you go with their argument and look atthe future, when any journalist requests any kind of information from a privateuniversity campus police department their stance is that they don’t have toprovide anything except if they so please,” Perkinson said.

Andersonsaid Elon was surprised to see this case move to litigation “despite the bestefforts by the university and its attorneys over the past year to respond to[Ochsner’s] request for records.”

“The university has made every effort to balance theinterest of transparency while maintaining its mission as a private educationalinstitution that is mindful of its obligation to protect student interests,”Anderson said.

Motionsto dismiss Ochsner’s case were filed by Elon University, Attorney General RayCooper and the State of North Carolina on May 20. Perkinson said the hearingfor those motions has been set for mid-July.

“Itis an area of law that needs to be resolved,” Perkinson said. “Hopefully thiscase stays alive.”

CLARIFICATION 6/2: Elon University was founded by what is now the United Church of Christ, though it is not formally affiliated with the church.