Daily Kansan wins access to accident report

Judge rules highway patrol violated state open-records law; police must comply with paper's request

KANSAS -- Twelve refusals by police did not stop the University of Kansas student newspaper staff from accessing an accident report.

Despite the Kansas Highway Patrol's claim that the report was exempt from the state open-records act, The University Daily Kansan decided to take its request to court where a judge ordered the cops to comply.

When The Kansan requested access to the report on a fatal September car accident involving two local residents, state police said they would not release the report because it was part of a criminal investigation.

But Shawnee County District Court Judge Terry Bullock ruled in March that the record should be considered public and turned over to the newspaper.

John Eichkorn, state public information officer for the Kansas Highway Patrol, said the patrol then turned over the records and will not appeal the decision.

According to Eichkorn, the patrol initially refused the newspaper's request to avoid jeopardizing the pending criminal investigation that later resulted in a 16-year-old pleading no contest to a charge of involuntary manslaughter.

Nathan Willis, now opinion editor of The Kansan, filed suit against the patrol in November, claiming the patrol violated the Kansas Open Records Act by refusing to release the report.

In his decision, Bullock said he ruled in favor of the newspaper because Willis was simply requesting the report the patrol must forward to the Kansas Department of Transportation. The information in this report "is not to be privileged or held confidential," Bullock said.

Bullock also ruled that there "is no statutory provision that would lend support to the [patrol's] claim that the report should not be made available to the public."

Eichkorn said the decision may affect the way the highway patrol handles accident reports in the future.

"I imagine that we'll probably take a look at how we file accident reports within our agency," he said.

The highway patrol will not have to pay The Kansan's attorney fees, which adviser Tom Eblen said were more than $2,000, because Bullock ruled the patrol's refusal was made "with reasonable basis in fact or law."

The newspaper was "rebuffed 12 times by the highway patrol and the district attorney's office," Eblen said. "We're pleased that the court saw our request."

reports, Spring 2001