Police files are subject to public records requests, NH Supreme Court rules

By PAUL CUNO-BOOTH

New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 11-30-2023 7:00 PM

New Hampshire’s Supreme Court delivered a win for police-transparency advocates Wednesday, ruling that internal police disciplinary files are subject to disclosure under the state’s public records law.

The 4-1 decision is the latest in a series of recent Supreme Court cases that have expanded access to public records under New Hampshire’s Right to Know Law. It follows a landmark pair of rulings in 2020 that – for the first time in decades – opened internal personnel records documenting misconduct by government employees up to public scrutiny.

The latest case concerned a public-records dispute between the ACLU of New Hampshire and New Hampshire State Police. The ACLU sought disciplinary records about a former state trooper, Haden Wilber. State Police officials fired Wilber in 2021 after determining he illegally searched someone’s phone without a warrant and misled investigators. State Police declined to hand those records over. Lawyers for the state claimed a separate statute – dealing with discovery in criminal trials – made police personnel records categorically exempt from public-records requests.

The Supreme Court rejected that position Wednesday. Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Gary Hicks said that statute only applies in the context of criminal cases – and does not bar people from seeking those files through public records requests.

Gilles Bissonnette, the ACLU-NH’s legal director, called the decision a “significant victory for government transparency.”

“What this case stands for, at its core, is that when an individual becomes a police officer, that individual should expect their conduct will be subject to greater scrutiny - because that’s the nature of the job,” he said.

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Had the state prevailed, “New Hampshire once again would have entered a dark age of secrecy with respect to police misconduct,” Bissonnette added.

The New Hampshire Division of Safety, which includes State Police, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

These articles are being shared by the Granite State News Collaborative.