Hempel v. City of Baraboo was a 2005 decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court which upheld a lower court order denying a records request made under the Wisconsin Open Records Law by Hal Hempel, a police officer of the Baraboo police department. Hempel sought records of an internal investigation conducted about allegations against him to the effect that he had harrassed female officers in the department. The police department believed that providing Hempel with the documents would have a chilling impact on its ability to investigate internal matters.
This case established that the intention and motivation for seeking records requests can be used when balancing the public interest in release of confidential material with the public interest in maintaining the material as exempt and protected.
- On February 10, 2000 Hempel was formally accused of gender based harassment by a female police officer. He was notified and an official inspection began into the offense.
- In June of 2000, Hempel was notified that the investigation was complete and that no formal charges would be filed. Portions of the file of the investigation that pertained to the final decision were placed in Hempel's personal file.
- On January 24, 2001, Hempel submitted two public records requests in order to view his personal file and all files relating to the investigation.
- On January 31, 2001, the police chief gave Hempel all records from his personal file, but determined that the remaining investigation records were exempt because no disciplinary action was taken.
- The Police Chief retired before fully responding to the second record requests. The new police chief released a number of records relating to the investigation, most of which were already in Hempel's personal file. The chief rejected the remainder of the request on the grounds that, the records are confidential in order to protect the parties involved, that the release would joepardize the city and state's ability to conduct investigations in the future and that the investigation record may contain untrue or false information which is protected.
- Hempel filed suit in district court. The Court ruled in favor of the city, stating that the public interest in disclosure did not outweigh the public interest in maintaining the files exemption.
- Hempel appealed the decision.
Supporters of the FOIA request
The Wisconsin Professional Police Association writes that the decision "changed the contours of the State’s Open Records Law."
Criticisms of the FOIA request
Justice Shirley Abrahamson issued a strongly-worded dissent, writing, "Faced with trying to craft a standard to cover this decidedly unexceptional case, the majority opinion ends up, despite its assertions, creating a rule that unfortunately can be applied in a broad array of cases to deny access to records."
Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Louis Butler joined Abrahamson's dissent.
Ruling of the court
The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of both the trial court and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.
One issue in the case was Hempel's motivation for seeking the documents. In his briefs, he stated that his actual motivation for seeking the documents was irrelevant. The state Supreme Court disagreed, saying, "In fact, requesters under the Open Records Law need not identify themselves, or state a purpose for their request. Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(i). When performing a balancing test, however, a records custodian almost inevitably must evaluate context to some degree."
Potential for future investigations
One reason the court gave for denying Hempel access to the investigation report is that Police Chief Thomas Lobe had indicated that he might want to use the file should any future, similar, complaints be received against Hempel. This led the court to reason that even though Lobe had used the word "resolved" to describe the status of the original complaint, the police chief had also indicated he might use the original complaint. The court say this meant the records had the potential to be "a record ‘maintained’ in connection with a pending complaint," which is an established exception to the Wisconsin Open Records Law.
Promises of confidentiality
The Court also found that the City could legally refuse to disclose the documents because they included statements made by informants who were promised confidentiality for their cooperation in the internal investigation.
Under Wisconsin Open Records laws, an individual who makes an open records request for records containing personally identifiable information under Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(am) is entitled to inspect the records unless the surrounding facts fall within one or more of the statutory exceptions to paragraph (am). The majority deemed that one such exception was § 19.35(1)(am)1. which reads:
1. Any record containing personally identifiable information that is collected or maintained in connection with a complaint, investigation or other circumstance that may lead to an enforcement action, administrative proceeding, arbitration proceeding or court proceeding, or any such record that is collected or maintained in connection with such an action or proceeding.
The majority further noted that it need not engage in a "balancing test" (concerning the public interest in the release of such information) as the legislature already addressed this concern by enacting statutory exceptions.
- ↑ Hempel v. City of Baraboo: The Supreme Court Of Wisconsin Limits Access To Records Involving Internal Investigations By Government Agencies