Why EastIdahoNews.com is suing for public records about a school shooting
The Rigby Middle School shooting on May 6 is a day that will be remembered for many years to come.
On that morning, a 13-year-old girl brought a gun to school and shot two students and a custodian. It was the first time in decades something like that had happened in eastern Idaho, and it shocked the community. Thankfully, no one was killed.
In the aftermath, a few details were released, including that an arrest had been made and that some type of charges were pending against the girl. But that was about it.
As often happens with juvenile court cases, the criminal matter was sealed in its entirety, and officials declined to release any more information.
Given the massive impact the shooting had on the community, the complete sealing of the case never sat well with EastIdahoNews.com. We feel that at least some details of the investigation and the case should be made public.
At the very least, we think the public is entitled to know the sequence of events that occurred that day and how the situation was handled by local law enforcement and government entities. We also believe the public is entitled to know the outcome of the case, including what charges were filed, whether there was a conviction and the suspect’s sentence.
We also know that this case needs to be reported carefully and respectfully given that the suspect is a child. We realize any reporting that occurs has the potential to harm her or her immediate family.
On Nov. 22, we filed a public information request with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office asking for two things:
- The 911 call or calls made on May 6 about the shooting at Rigby Middle School with the names of juveniles redacted.
- The investigative report into the May 6 shooting at Rigby Middle School with the names of juveniles redacted.
We made clear in our request that the names of the suspect and any other juvenile involved should be redacted from records granted to protect the anonymity of any involved youth.
The county responds
We received a response from Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Taylor two days later denying the request in its entirety.
In his analysis, Taylor argued the documents requested are “court records” and are subject to certain Idaho Court Administrative Rules that exempt juvenile records from being released to the public.
“I am advising the sheriff’s office not to disclose the records you have requested — not because I have decided whether or not you are entitled to them, but rather because I believe that they are part of the juvenile records of a person maintained pursuant to the Juvenile Corrections Act, which cannot be disclosed except upon request and in a manner determined by the court under Idaho Code 74-105(2),” Taylor wrote.
Taylor stated by granting the request, county officials would be opening up the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and Jefferson County Prosecutor’s Office to contempt of court.
Taylor suggested EastIdahoNews.com petition the court directly for the records.
After consultation with the Idaho Press Club, EastIdahoNews.com took issue with Taylor’s response. We were not requesting court records — rather, our request was limited to public records under the purview of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. Based on our interpretation, these documents are separate from court documents and are not subject to Idaho Court Administrative Rules, so they can be at least partially disclosed under the Idaho Public Records Act.
In January, we hired Wright Law Offices in Idaho Falls to represent us in fighting for these records to be open.
Our attorney, Steve Wright, argues that just because a record has been used in court or becomes part of the court record, that does not exempt the original documents from being a public record that remains accessible through the Public Records Act.
“The Public Records Act specifically states that ‘every person has a right to examine and take a copy of any public record at the state, and there is a presumption that all public records in Idaho are open at all times for inspection except as otherwise expressly provided by statute,'” Wright wrote in his argument.
EastIdahoNews.com acknowledges that Public Records Act also makes some exceptions regarding juvenile data, and we are not seeking to release any private information that may serve to publicly identify the suspect.
“It is obvious that the interest of the juvenile must be considered,” Wright wrote. “East Idaho News has not argued to the contrary. However, as important as those interests are, they are not the only critical interests to be considered … Extremely violent acts occurred that day, threatening the health and safety of members of the public. Children and parents were no doubt traumatized. Everyone was affected.”
He continued, “Particularly as it relates to issues such as school gun violence, the public must be kept informed. This responsibility goes far beyond simply documenting the occurrence of the event.”
Wright says that by denying the request, the public “has also been deprived of the ability to learn and evaluate the effectiveness of the government’s response” to the shooting.
EastIdahoNews.com is asking the court to overrule the decision of the county and produce all the requested records with the exception of the redacted parts.
“The county’s burden is to carefully review and redact information inappropriate to disclose, with an explanation of the basis for withholding specific facts (not the entirety of the request), and turn the remainder over to East Idaho News,” Wright wrote.
Waiting on a decision
EastIdahoNews.com attended a Zoom hearing before District Judge Stevan Thompson on Thursday to hear arguments from all sides of the case.
In addition to Wright and Taylor, Attorney Curtis Smith attended and spoke on behalf of the child suspect. He said that in the process of defending his client, efforts were made by the prosecutor’s office to make some of the information public.
However, at each point, the court refused to release additional details because of the juvenile involved.
“I would argue that almost everything that is in possession of the sheriff’s office has become in one way or another part of a court record of someone that is 13 years old or younger and who a judge has consistently sealed the record for and stayed firm on that,” Smith said.
Smith also made an emotional plea to consider the impact that releasing the data has on the suspect and her family. He said the family has had numerous threats, unpleasant things have been left on their door and their home has been vandalized.
Ultimately, Thompson opted not to rule from the bench and said he would issue a written ruling on the public records case in the coming days.