City Settles FOIA Lawsuit on ELPD for $4K

Monday, May 16, 2016, 10:20 am
Alice Dreger

As noted in our weekly Council Capsule, East Lansing’s City Council voted last week at the City Attorney’s recommendation to settle a lawsuit brought against the City by Evan Stivers. The settlement of the suit cost City taxpayers $4,000, not counting legal expenses, and involved the City personnel's refusal to turn over to Stivers, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), information about complaints made against two East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) officers who had earlier arrested Stivers.

Stivers was represented in the case by the MSU College of Law Civil Rights Clinic and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Fund of Michigan. According to the plaintiff’s filing in the case—which ELi obtained for readers via the Freedom of Information Act—in July 2015, Stivers held a party and a neighbor called ELPD complaining of excessive noise. ELPD Officer Justan Horst and Officer Harkins (apparently Asheley Harkins) came to the call.

When Stivers tried to film the encounter with the officers using his cellphone, the officers arrested Stivers. According to Stivers’ court filing, he was “originally arrested and held in the East Lansing jail for several hours for a misdemeanor noise violation. This violation was later pled down to a civil infraction and has since been resolved.”

Stivers proceeded to file a FOIA request seeking information about any citizen complaints against the two officers. The ELPD refused to comply with the FOIA request, claiming “the public interest in nondisclosure outweighed the public interest in disclosure because the complaints ‘have either not been sustained or the officers have been exonerated.’” The ELPD further claimed that if there were any open complaints, releasing them “would interfere with law enforcement proceedings.”

Stivers appealed to City Manager George Lahanas who denied the appeal, saying there was “a significant public interest in nondisclosure of complaints where the complaint has not been sustained or the officers have been exonerated.” But Stivers’ attorneys presented case law in their lawsuit against the City saying this was a wrong, and that the Michigan Court of Appeal had “found that citizen complaints and disciplinary records of police officers were not exempted from disclosure.”

In the settlement, approved last week by Council without further discussion, the City of East Lansing agreed to pay Stivers’ legal representative $4,000 and to release such records in the future when requested. The City agreed to respond to these types of FOIA requests using a specific form attached to the settlement agreement (see page 5 of this PDF).

According to the settlement agreement, the City does not have to provide any information that would give away identifying information on complainants or victims nor does it have to give information if an investigation is still pending. It also does not have to provide interviews or officers’ “opinions and commentary” regarding complaints, and it does not have to provide material on internal complaints made against officers by fellow employees of ELPD.

The City was represented in this case by Tom Yeadon, who was recently reappointed City Attorney.


Photo: MSU College of Law, courtesy of MSU.