GRAND RAPIDS, MI - The Grand Rapids Press and MLive filed a lawsuit Friday over the city of Grand Rapids' refusal to release recorded phone calls of police handling the crash of a former prosecutor who one officer described as "hammered."
The calls, on a phone line designated "non-recorded," could help explain why former Assistant Kent County Prosecutor Josh Kuiper was not asked to take a breath test for alcohol at the scene. Instead, police drove Kuiper home.
"The Grand Rapids Press and MLive are committed to fighting for access to records that show the actions of public officials," said John Hiner, vice president of content for MLive Media Group. "In this instance, officials cannot even cite a legal exemption to the Freedom of Information Act. We shouldn't have to sue for what is clearly in the public realm, but we have confidence that the law is in our favor."
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Grand Rapids City Manager Greg Sundstrom said Friday that the city wants to release the recordings and use them in its case to fire Lt. Matthew Janiskee. But he said the city cannot release them without the approval of a federal judge.
The city filed a federal lawsuit last month in hopes a judge would resolve the city's dispute with police unions over whether the calls between Janiskee and two other officers on the "non-recorded" line could be used in disciplinary proceedings.
"We probably agree with you (The Press and MLive) because our case is that we should be able to release them," Sundstrom said. "It's the other side that thinks we should not. I don't want to upset the federal judge."
"We look forward to the judge making a decision on whether these recordings can be released or not," Sundstrom added. "And if he says yes, you will have them promptly."
In its lawsuit filed in Kent County Circuit Court, The Grand Rapids Press and MLive say the city's reference to the federal lawsuit in denying the records request is insufficient. The media group alleges that the city, by filing a federal lawsuit, has in effect tried to create its own exemption for denial of Freedom of Information Act requests.
The city fails to cite any applicable exemptions to Michigan's Freedom of Information Act in its denial letter, the lawsuit says.
The telephone recordings "sought by MLive are essential to vindicating the public's interest in monitoring the investigation ... and the events that followed," the lawsuit says. "The conversations of city police officials on a recorded telephone line during the investigation of a car crash undeniably constitute 'public records' within the meaning of the FOIA."
The Grand Rapids Press and MLive also filed a motion for summary disposition, and a request for immediate disclosure of records, along with attorney fees, costs, fines and $1,000 in punitive damages.
The controversy stems from Kuiper's accident on Nov. 19. Kuiper crashed his pickup truck into a parked car, injuring a man, while going the wrong-way on Union Avenue SE south of Fulton Street.
At about 12:30 a.m., responding Officer Adam Ickes called the watch commander's desk and told Janiskee that Kuiper was "hammered." That brief exchange between Ickes and Janiskee was made on a known recorded telephone line and the recording was previously released by the city following a FOIA request.
Shortly after Ickes started talking, Janiskee told him to "stop." A moment later, Janiskee said, "3407," the telephone line officers thought was non-recorded.
Police officials later learned that five calls from the scene, by Ickes and then-Sgt. Thomas Warwick to Janiskee, were actually recorded on line 3407.
Ickes and Warwick were suspended, while Warwick was also demoted. The city is pushing to fire Janiskee.
Janiskee, meanwhile, has filed a lawsuit against the city alleging the conversations on line 3407 were recorded illegally and that his rights were violated.
Kuiper was later charged with reckless driving causing serious injury, a five-year felony, but no alcohol-related offenses. He had been at a retirement party for former Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth. Janiskee's wife, Monica, is the county's chief assistant prosecutor.
MLive staff reporter Amy Biolchini contributed to this report.