The New Orleans Police Department is on the hook to pay the Innocence Project New Orleans $8,600. A state appeal court upheld a ruling against the department for its failure to turn over public records.
The local office of the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal group that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted defendants, sued the NOPD earlier this year after it was denied access to investigative files from a 1991 aggravated rape and burglary case. State law requires a response to the request within three days, but 65 days elapsed before City Attorney Sharonda Williams’ office responded, mostly denying the request.
A New Orleans judge ordered the records released and awarded the Innocence Project $5,000 in civil penalties and $3,607 in litigation fees and costs. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, in a unanimous ruling Wednesday (Nov. 6), upheld that judgment.
Under state law, civil penalties of as much as $100 may be awarded for each day the custodian fails to offer proper notification, excluding weekends and public holidays. In this case, the department ran afoul of the law for at least 50 days, the appeal court said. So the $5,000 penalty stands.
Local Innocence Project Director Emily Maw said it was a “real waste of taxpayer money” for the city to fight the records request. The investigative files obtained in the case did not present any key evidence to exonerate the convict, Bennie Brown, she said, but they are the kind of routine records that the group seeks in requests that often go ignored.
Maw said the Innocence Project has several other legal actions pending against NOPD for public records, and several are more in the works.
New Orleans Police Department spokeswoman Remi Braden said the department had no comment pending review by the city attorney’s office.
The local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police weighed in on the court’s ruling, saying it was a failure of the city attorney’s office — not the NOPD or Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who is the custodian of the records. As the custodian, he is responsible for compliance under the state law, but it was the city attorney’s office that denied the request, according to the court records.
“Once again the city attorney’s office failed an FOP member by failing to follow the law,” said FOP spokesman Raymond Burkart III, himself a lawyer.
He said the $8,607 award should not come out of the police budget but rather from the city attorney’s. Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.