Local newspaper goes to court
Post Independent Staff
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 an incident in 1995 in which a police officer used excessive use of force.
Earlier this year, the Valley Journal asked the Carbondale Police Department for details of the incident, which 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 an incident on Nov. 17, 1995, in which a Carbondale police officer Jose Munoz used excessive force against a man in the Full Moon Bar in Carbondale. Munoz 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, but came to light during the trial of a Carbondale resident, Steve Horn, in February.
In August 2004, Horn was pulled over by Munoz for running a stop sign. Horn got out of his vehicle and approached Munoz to ask what the problem was. Munoz testified in court that he felt threatened by Horn and said he was acting erratically. He stunned Horn four times with a Taser gun and arrested him.
During the trial, municipal court judge John Collins revealed that in 1995 Munoz 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 conclusion of the trail, John Colson, who was then editor of the Valley Journal, asked Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling to see all the documents relating to the November 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 Kelly would bring suit. The town then petitioned the court to decide the matter.
On Friday, Munoz’ attorney Marc Colin argued that the records are part of the officer’s personnel file and should remain confidential. He also proposed 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 Munoz outlining the incident, are public record and cannot be suppressed.
Mark Hamilton, the town attorney, 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 have been 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 Munoz reported the incident himself, and admitted that he used excessive force.
Munoz 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.”
Munoz 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.
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