(AP) The state’s highest court ordered the Barnstable County sheriff on Tuesday to release the names of his reserve deputies to the Cape Cod Times, ruling that the information is a matter of public record even though the reserves are not public officials.
The newspaper began investigating the sheriff’s department after police launched a criminal probe into a car dealership owned by a reserve deputy sheriff who was later indicted on larceny charges and resigned from the reserve program.
Sheriff James M. Cummings refused to release the names of his more than 200 reserve deputies, saying they were entitled to privacy because they work for the Barnstable County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, a private organization not subject to public records law.
The Times sued, arguing the names and addresses were public records kept by the sheriff’s department and should be available for inspection. Superior Court Judge David A. McLaughlin ruled in the sheriff’s favor in December 2003.
The Supreme Judicial Court bypassed the state Appeals Court in deciding to hear the newspaper’s appeal and overturned the lower court decision. The SJC sent the case back to Superior Court for further proceedings in line with the high court’s opinion.
“No exemption to the statutory definition of public records or other provision of law insulates the records from inspection,” Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote in the court’s ruling.
The Times argued that the records were public because the applications for reserve deputies are processed by sheriff’s department employees on public time. The newspaper also noted that other employees do criminal background checks on prospective deputies.
The SJC agreed that records are public when they are “made and received” by public officials.
“We think it’s quite a victory for the public’s right to know and a defeat for government secrecy,” Cape Cod Times editor Cliff Schechtman said. “Basically, we think the community has a right to know who these hundreds of people are who are sworn in to uphold the law.”
Sheriff Cummings said he did not plan to appeal the ruling and will turn over the disputed records.
“Our intention has always been to be open as much as we can,” Cummings said. “The Times editor speaks of secrecy, but the law wasn’t clear. I think the two different rulings from different parts of the judiciary kind of speak to the ambiguity of the law.”
Barnstable’s reserve deputy sheriffs are civilians allowed to carry replicas of deputy sheriff badges without any law enforcement training. They raise money and participate in charitable causes. They do take an oath promising to uphold the duties of the sheriff’s office, although they are rarely called to act on it.
The sheriff’s department argued that the reserves were not employees of the sheriff’s office and that they expected privacy when they took the oath and joined the association.
The SJC disagreed that releasing the records would constitute an invasion of privacy.
“Any constitutional protection of individual privacy does not insulate the disclosure of the names and addresses of those who have applied to, and been appointed by, a public official, regardless of the scope of their subsequent responsibilities,” the court wrote.