Supreme Court Rules that Nashville Police not Required to Release Records in Vanderbilt Rape Case

March 17, 2016

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that the Metro Nashville Police Department is not required by the Tennessee Public Records Act to release investigation records requested by a group of media organizations in a rape case involving four former Vanderbilt University football players. 

In June 2013, Metro Police investigated an alleged rape of a Vanderbilt University student in a college dormitory.  The investigation led to the indictment of four Vanderbilt football players for multiple counts of rape and sexual battery, and one with unlawful photography and tampering with evidence.  After all four pleaded not guilty, the Davidson County Criminal Court issued an agreed protective order, providing that all photographs and videos provided to the defendants by the State could be viewed only by the defendants’ attorneys.

On October 17, 2013, a reporter for The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper, made a public records request to Metro Police, seeking to inspect any records regarding the alleged rape involving the four Vanderbilt football players, including any text messages received or sent and any videos provided and/or prepared by any third-party sources.  The Public Records Act generally provides for the right of the public to inspect government records.  Metro Police denied the request because the requested records were part of an open criminal investigation and pending prosecution and were, therefore, exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act.  Meanwhile, several other media organizations joined The Tennessean in requesting the records.   

On February 5, 2014, The Tennessean and other media organizations filed suit in Davidson County Chancery Court seeking access to the requested records under the Public Records Act.  Along with Metro Police, the State and the victim opposed release of the records. 

The State and Metro Police contended that all the requested records were exempt from disclosure under Rule 16(a)(2) of the Rules of Criminal Procedure, which they claimed protects all investigation records from disclosure while criminal proceedings are still pending. They further argued that many of the records were protected against disclosure by the criminal court’s protective order and that disclosure of the records could lead to an unfair trial. The victim further asserted that release of the records would violate her rights as a victim, which are protected by the Victims’ Bill of Rights and the Tennessee Constitution.  The media organizations argued, on the other hand, that Rule 16(a)(2) does not protect all records from disclosure during a pending criminal proceeding, and particularly not those that were prepared by and/or provided to police by third parties. 

The Chancery Court, after privately inspecting the requested records, ruled that some of the records were subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act. The Court of Appeals reversed the Chancery Court’s ruling, finding that all of the sought-after records were exempt from disclosure under Rule 16(a)(2), as they were all relevant to a pending or contemplated criminal action. The media organizations appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. 

The Supreme Court ruled that, under the facts of this case, the requested records were exempt from disclosure under Rule 16. The Court held that while the Public Records Act generally provides for access to public records, there are numerous statutory exceptions that protect certain records from disclosure.  One of these exceptions is when state law provides for non-disclosure.  The Court noted that Rule 16, which is a rule of discovery between the State and defendants in criminal cases, is a state law exception to disclosure under the Public Records Act. This rule, the Court held, provides for the release of the requested records only to the State and the defendants while the criminal cases and any collateral challenges to the criminal convictions are pending.   

The Court explained that if Rule 16 did not function as an exception to disclosure in this case, a defendant would have no reason to seek discovery from the State, but would instead simply file a public records request and obtain the entire police investigative file, which could include more information than the defendant could otherwise obtain under Rule 16. Similarly, if the media could make a public records request and obtain the investigative files, then the defendants and potential jurors could learn about the State’s case simply by reading a newspaper or watching a television news broadcast.  Thus, the Court held that while the media plays an important and necessary role in holding government officials accountable, the media’s role must yield to the need to protect the rights of the defendants and the integrity of the criminal justice system during the pendency of the criminal cases and any collateral challenges to the criminal convictions.

The Court’s ruling protects the victim’s privacy while the criminal case and any collateral proceedings are pending.  After that time, state law provides when a defendant pleads guilty or is convicted and sentenced, the victim’s identifying information and any photographs or video images of the victim are confidential and are not to be disclosed.

Dissenting from the majority, Justice Gary R. Wade agreed with the trial court that Rule 16(a)(2) exempts from public disclosure only those records that contain witness statements or qualify as state work product. In addition, Justice Wade concluded that the victim was entitled to a ruling on her claim that the public disclosure of records relating to the rape incident would violate her constitutional right “to be free from intimidation, harassment and abuse throughout the criminal justice system.” Justice Wade’s dissent expressed concern that the victim will be forced to re-litigate her claim at a later time because Rule 16(a)(2) will cease to exempt the documents from disclosure when the criminal prosecutions come to an end.

Justice Holly Kirby agreed with the majority and filed a separate concurring opinion responding to the dissent.  Justice Kirby said that the dissent “would throw open police files on pending investigations and criminal prosecutions, not only to responsible media sources, but also to suspected perpetrators under investigation and their allies, gang members, voyeurs, pornographers, anyone.”  A ruling in line with the dissent, she said, could have “catastrophic consequences for all involved in the criminal justice system.”

Read the Court’s opinion in The Tennessean, et al. v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, et al., authored by Chief Justice Lee, Justice Kirby’s separate concurring opinion, and Justice Wade’s dissenting opinion.