Police Department Internal Affairs Reports Required to be Disclosed Under the Right-to-Know Law Even When the Underlying Allegations of Police Officer Misconduct are Unfounded.

Samuel Provenza v. Town of Canaan
Grafton County Superior Case No. 215-2020-CV-155
Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Provenza, a former police officer for the Town of Canaan, sought to prevent the public disclosure of an internal investigative report that had exonerated him from a claim of excessive force arising out of a traffic stop involving Crystal Eastman.  Based on the recent NH Supreme Court decisions in Union Leader v. Salem and Seacoast Newspapers v Portsmouth, the Valley News sought access to the internal investigative report that had been previously refused by the Town.  Upon making Provenza aware of the renewed request for the report, he filed suit seeking to enjoin the Town from releasing the report.  

The Town had hired Municipal Resources, Inc. (MRI) to conduct an internal investigation to determine whether the level of force used by Provenza on Eastman was justified.  Eastman had been acquitted of a resisting arrest charge but found guilty of disobeying a police officer. Provenza argued that his privacy interests in an unfounded internal affairs investigation outweighed the interests of the public for disclosure. 

Using the privacy balancing test the Court first determined that Provenza’s privacy interests in the disclosure of the MRI were minimal.  In reaching that decision the Court ruled that information concerning purely private details about a person who happens to work for the government is very different from details concerning the individual’s conduct in his capacity as a government employee.  Because the MRI report did not reveal intimate details of Provenza’s life, but rather Provenza’s conduct as a government employee, his privacy interest in releasing that report was deemed minimal.  Upon weighing the public interest in the release of the MRI report the Court concluded that there is a compelling public interest supporting that release that would enable the public to evaluate the integrity of the Canaan Police Department’s internal affairs investigation of the incident.  First, the public has the right to know that the police take their complaints seriously and that the investigation was "comprehensive and accurate."  Second, the public similarly has the right to know whether the police officer in question was given a fair investigation which aligned with traditional notions of due process. Third, as is evidenced by the national conversation concerning policing in the United States, transparency at all levels of police conduct investigations is fundamentally important to ensure the public's confidence and trust in local police departments.

Provenza argued for a bright line rule that where an internal investigative report concludes that a complaint against an officer is unfounded or not sustained then the officer’s privacy interests outweighs the public interest.  The Superior Court rejected that argument and ruled that the MRI report, subject to redaction of the names of witnesses and minors, was subject to disclosure. 


Additional Information: 

Practice Pointer:  An internal investigative report about the conduct of a police officer during the performance of his official duties would likely be subject to disclosure under the Right-to-Know Law, even if the allegations that brought about the investigation are unfounded.  However, an internal investigative report about the conduct of a police officer in his personal affairs, and not during the performance of his official duties, may entail a sufficient privacy interest under RSA 91-A:5, IV to justify not disclosing an internal affairs investigation report.