Public’s right to know put to the test
October 1, 2005
The public’s right to know had a rare hearing in district court in Glenwood Springs Friday. Judge James Boyd heard arguments from attorneys for the town of Carbondale, Carbondale police and the Valley Journal over whether or not the town should be forced to reveal details of a 1995 incident in which a police officer used excessive force.Earlier this year, the Valley Journal asked the Carbondale Police Department for details of the incident; the police department turned down the request. In March, the town asked the district court to rule whether or not the files should be made public.The court case grew out of a Nov. 17, 1995, incident in which Carbondale police officer José Muñoz used excessive force against a man in the Full Moon Bar in Carbondale. Muñoz was suspended from duty for one day for violating the town’s excessive use of force policy.At the time, the incident drew little attention. It came to light later during the trial of Carbondale resident Steve Horn in February. In August 2004, Horn was pulled over by Muñoz for running a stop sign. Horn got out of his vehicle and approached Muñoz to ask what the problem was. Muñoz testified in court that Horn was acting erratically and that he felt threatened by Horn. Muñoz proceeded to stun Horn four times with a Taser gun before arresting him.During Horn’s trial, municipal court judge John Collins revealed that in 1995 Muñoz had been disciplined by the Carbondale Police Department for using excessive force against a patron of the Full Moon Bar.Horn was found guilty of a traffic offense, but not guilty of impeding a police officer and resisting arrest. After the trial, John Colson, then-editor of the Valley Journal, asked Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling to see all the documents relating to the November 1995 incident.The Valley Journal’s attorney, Tom Kelly, of the Faegre and Benson law firm in Denver, sent a letter to the town putting it on notice that if the records were not turned over to the Valley Journal in three days, the paper would file suit. The town then petitioned the court to decide the matter.On Friday, Muñoz’ attorney, Marc Colin, argued that the records are part of the officer’s personnel file and should remain confidential. He also contended that because the incident happened 10 years ago, there is less public interest in it now.Steven Zansberg, Kelly’s law partner, who represented the Valley Journal in court Friday, argued that the documents, including a memo of disciplinary action taken by the police department, and a letter to then-police Chief Fred Williams from Muñoz outlining the incident, are public record and cannot be suppressed.Attorney Mark Hamilton, speaking for the town, said, “The town is caught between a relatively black-and-white argument by the media … and the privacy assertion of the police, and the town is not comfortable making the decision” about releasing the records. The documents related to the incident “could be treated as both open records and personnel files,” he said. Schilling testified the documents should not be released because doing so would undermine public confidence in the police department’s ability to carry on an investigation. Nor would witnesses to a crime be willing to give the police information knowing it would not be kept secret. Schilling also revealed that Muñoz reported the incident himself, and admitted that he used excessive force.Muñoz also testified that he wrote the letter to Chief Williams, “because I let my personal feelings [override] my job as a police officer. I reacted as a person rather than as a police officer.”Muñoz admitted he “had strong personal feelings” about the person, whom he did not know. However, he also said that if the details of the confrontation were made public, “it would make my job much more difficult … It would diminish my effectiveness as a police officer.” The incident, he said, was a “learning experience. I have not had any incidents since then.”In his closing arguments, Zansberg said, “These [documents] are unquestionably public records [because] the files have to do with official conduct … Police officers have no expectation of privacy when it comes to official conduct.”In addition, “the public has a compelling interest in being able to inspect how the police department polices itself.”Judge Boyd will review the arguments presented Friday, as well as the documents in question. Boyd was about to go on vacation and said he would not be ready to issue his ruling before the end of October.