Judge: Release records | AspenTimes.com

Judge: Release records

Chad Abraham

The Carbondale Police Department must release all records of an internal investigation into a police officer disciplined for using excessive force against a resident in 1995, a judge ruled Tuesday.Judge James Boyd’s ruling could end a lengthy legal fight between the Valley Journal and the town of Carbondale over the records concerning Officer Jose Munoz. The town’s attorney said an appeal is “very unlikely.”The ruling came with an 18-day stay on the release of the documents, a standard period to allow for an appeal. If there is no appeal, Mark Hamilton, Carbondale’s town attorney, said the town will ensure the release of the records by Dec. 5.The newspaper first sought the files during the trial earlier this year of a Carbondale resident whom Munoz arrested. The resident, Steve Horn, said Munoz stunned him with a Taser six times during a traffic stop in August 2004. Munoz, who continues to work for the department, said Horn was acting erratically and that he felt threatened.The 1995 incident came up during Horn’s trial, when his lawyer attempted to get the investigation records. Horn was charged with resisting arrest, impeding a police officer and running a stop sign. A jury found Horn guilty only on the last count.The Valley Journal later also requested records of the police department’s investigation and disciplining of Munoz in 1995. The department and the town went to court to stop the release of the documents.Munoz’s lawyer, Marc Colin, and Hamilton made three arguments against disclosing the records. One of the arguments said that releasing them would break a state law that prevents disclosures that are “contrary to the public interest,” according to Boyd’s ruling.They also cited Munoz’s constitutional right of privacy and said the release would have a chilling effect on governmental decision-making in Carbondale.The lawyer for the Valley Journal, Steven Zansberg, said the records concerning a police officer’s on-duty tasks were not private and that the other side’s other arguments had little merit. Boyd agreed. He noted that Munoz quickly reported the incident to his boss, then-Police Chief Fred Williams.But “in this case, another officer witnessed Officer Munoz’s actions,” the ruling says. “Officer Munoz had reason to believe his actions had been independently reported to the police department prior to his self-report. The chilling effect in these circumstances is materially less …”As for Munoz’s right to privacy, Boyd said the information in the file is candid and personal.”However, the information is a description of facts which occurred as part of Officer Munoz’s performance of his official duties in a public place,” the ruling says. “Therefore, its disclosure will not stifle government discussion.”And because the records describe what he was doing while on duty, they do not rise to the level of “highly personal and sensitive,” Boyd said, and therefore releasing the information does not violate the officer’s right to privacy.Finally, the judge said there was no evidence that the documents’ release would be contrary to the public interest.”It serves the public interest to have access to this type of information,” said Zansberg, who represents multiple media outlets, including The Aspen Times. The same company owns both the Times and the Valley Journal. “The people have a compelling interest to know that serious charges of police misconduct are investigated and how they’re investigated.”It’s not just the officer’s conduct on the night in question, but [also] how the police department polices itself,” he said.Hamilton said the case’s complexity made it difficult to predict Boyd’s ruling.”The law in this area is developing and changing,” he said. “This issue is kind of a moving target nationally.”Both Zansberg and Colin, Munoz’s attorney, are involved in similar cases all over Colorado and in other states, Hamilton said. Police privacy is an area “ripe for litigation,” he added.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com

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