Hegar files bill to limit open records information
ROCKPORT - A startling realization struck Aransas County authorities as they compiled documents to fill an open records request more than a year ago: Somewhere among rows of digits in the sheriff's office's phone records likely were numbers belonging to confidential informants.
The thought troubled them. People who called the Aransas County Sheriff's Office with anonymous tips sometimes helped put criminals behind bars, reason enough to want their identities protected.
The scenario they envisioned was this: It could take hours for an officer to go through requested phone, text and email records to pinpoint anonymous sources and remove their identifying information. However, a criminal with a score to settle would need significantly less time to browse through the public information, find a phone number they recognized and figure out who had called in a tip about them.
"We realized the situation and the harm that could result," Aransas County Attorney Richard Bianchi said. "It's important for people to ask for information, but when you get into law enforcement, there are times when we need to stop and think about what we're giving to whom."
A bill that would put their concern to rest was filed March 1 by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy. Senate Bill 988 would allow peace officers to withhold records of telephone calls, text messages, emails and other electronic communication records without the approval of the Texas Attorney General. Law enforcement agencies or officers would have to release the information if given a court order or grand jury subpoena.
While they hope the exception will ensure that confidential sources feel comfortable sharing information and remain protected, it also raises questions about how the public's ability to get records on law enforcement activity will be affected.
"If a person in prison (wants) to know who gave him up, he can find out," said Sheriff Bill Mills, who contacted Hegar about crafting the bill. "We're just asking to tighten up the availability of it a little bit. It's an easy way to find information that we never expected to go public, much less endanger someone."
Joe Larsen, of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said he finds the scenario highly unlikely. He added that the Attorney General frequently approves law enforcement requests to withhold public information, such as when releasing records would harm an investigation or reveal a confidential informant.
"To me, this is just a bunch of pie in the sky kind of stuff," he said. "I've never heard of any confidential informant being identified from a public information (request)."
Bianchi said people who want to view law enforcement communications records would need to explain the reason for the request to a judge. That judge could ask that large information requests be narrowed or to review records pulled by authorities to determine if they pertain to what the requester seeks.
"The sheriff would produce (records) for review but, at the same time, not potentially (reveal confidential sources) to the public," he said. "If you look at it from the shield law that protects reporters and their sources, I think you'll get some comfort as to what the reasoning is."
Larsen disagreed, saying the proposed exemptions are broad and would hinder oversight of law enforcement by requiring the public to know what information they need before being able to look at records.
"In a representative democracy like the United States of America, this (bill) gets it completely backward," he said. "How are these people supposed to know what to argue to the court?"