Social media postings are no substitute for a public information response

Q: We are finding it difficult to get needed information about incidents the police department handles. Usually it takes days and sometimes we don’t get it, period. The public information officer told our reporter the department no longer alerts the media and their policy is now to post incident report information on their Facebook page. Is this customary? Any suggestions?

A: The Texas Public Information Act doesn’t say governmental bodies may use social media postings as an alternative way to respond to requests for public information. When you make a request for incident report information, your police department is required either to give you responsive, readily available information promptly, that is, without delay  — or — state the exception to the Public Information Act that allows them to keep the information confidential. If the custodian of public information is unsure about what information is public and what is not, the governmental body is required to request an opinion from the Texas Attorney General. The governmental body also is required to provide you, the requestor, with a copy of their request for an AG opinion.

Q: I’m digging through various versions of the Public Information Act online and not finding what I’m looking for. Our police department’s secretary, from whom we get the material for the police blotter from every week, says we can’t see the incident reports and that only licensed police officers have the right to see them. I’m pretty sure that’s not true, but I haven’t been able to find the right document and/or section to make my case. We have a good relationship with the department and it would greatly speed up the process of getting the info for the police blotter if we could see those incident reports ourselves. Can you point me in the right direction?

A: Here are a couple of things may help. First, please read this paragraph is from page 101 of the Office of the Attorney General's 2016 Public Information Handbook:

“Although basic information not excepted from disclosure by section 552.108 often is described by its location (first-page offense report information), the location of the information or the label placed on it is not determinative of its status under section 552.108. For example, radio dispatch logs or radio cards maintained by a police department that contain the type of information deemed public generally may not be withheld. Likewise, basic information appearing in other records of law enforcement agencies, such as blotters, arrest sheets, and ‘show-up sheets,’ is not excepted from disclosure by section 552.108. Conversely, a video of a booking that conveys information excepted from disclosure is not subject to disclosure when editing the tape is practically impossible and the public information on the tape is available in written form.”

Second: Here’s another excerpt from the AG’s 2016 Public Information Handbook. This is the list of what public information in an arrest report: Limitations on Scope of Section 552.108. Section 552.108(c) provides that basic information about an arrested person, an arrest, or a crime may not be withheld under section 552.108. The kinds of basic information not excepted from disclosure by section 552.108 are those that were deemed public in Houston Chronicle Publ’g Co. v. City of Houston and catalogued in Open Records Decision No. 127 (1976). Basic information is information that ordinarily appears on the first page of an offense report, such as: (a) the name, age, address, race, sex, occupation, alias, social security number, police department identification number, and physical condition of the arrested person; (b) the date and time of the arrest; (c) the place of the arrest; (d) the offense charged and the court in which it is filed; (e) the details of the arrest; (f) booking information; (g) the notation of any release or transfer; (h) bonding information; (i) the location of the crime; (j) the identification and description of the complainant; (k) the premises involved; (l) the time of occurrence of the crime; (m) the property involved, if any; (n) the vehicles involved, if any; (o) a description of the weather; (p) a detailed description of the offense; and (q) the names of the arresting and investigating officers.

Q: Can you tell us what notices a junior college district has to run if its tax levy is over $500,000 and it is planning to raise taxes to just under the rollback rate? This is new territory for our college district because they’ve always been a small taxing unit, but now evaluations have gone up enough to kick them over the $500k levy threshold. The college thinks it needs to run four notices, but the local appraisal district says it only has to run two. Also, one of the notices in question is the Notice of Effective Rate, which has typically been run every year by our city and county, but now the chief appraiser says no one has to run that anymore.  Is that correct?

A: According to the state Tax Code and the Texas Comptroller’s Truth in Taxation guide, when a taxing unit wants to adopt a tax rate that is equal to or lower than the current effective tax rate, the taxing unit need simply adopt the tax rate at a regular meeting. (The maintenance & operation and interest & sinking fund rates must be adopted separately.) As for the public notice in that case, it is not a paid public notice, but a normal notice of the date, time and place of the meeting and the agenda items, posted 72 hours in advance of the meeting in a place convenient to the public. However, if a governmental body like the appraisal district or the junior college district wants your newspaper to publish a paid, display-type notice of hearing on adoption of a tax rate that is equal to or lower than the effective tax rate, they are free to do so, considering that may be less hassle to have such a notice published than to field calls from taxpayers who want to see the paid quarter-page, display-style notice in the newspaper even if it isn’t required.

Q: A family was involved in a motor vehicle crash this past weekend. The mother died but her small boy is in critical condition at a hospital in the neighboring state. Do we have to get permission from the family to use the boy’s name? And if we do can it be from his grandparents or does it have to be from his dad?

A: In accordance with HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act passed by Congress in 1996, it takes a parent’s written authorization for a hospital to release their child’s name and medical status/information to the media.