A Hawaii Circuit Court judge awarded more than $43,000 in attorneys’ fees Thursday to The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest in a lawsuit involving disclosure of police misconduct records.

Judge Karl Sakamoto ordered the City and County of Honolulu to pay the law center after it denied Civil Beat access to the disciplinary files of 12 Honolulu police officers who had been suspended for more than 20 days.

Sakamoto ruled in February that those files should be public.

The nonprofit law center filed the lawsuit on behalf of Civil Beat, which had sought the records as part of its ongoing investigation into police misconduct.

“Attorneys’ fees are important in a case like this because it provides an incentive for attorneys to help members of the public get access to information,” said Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center. “It’s one of the more positive aspects of the (Uniform Information Practices Act) that it specifically favors those that have been denied records.”

Under the UIPA, attorneys’ fees can be awarded when an individual successfully sues for public records. Not only does it help a plaintiff recoup costs, but the fees can also act as a deterrent for agencies that wrongfully withhold public information.

An agency can appeal the fees, which is what Gov. Neil Abercrombie did in 2012 after the Honolulu Star-Advertiser successfully sued him to release the names of judicial nominees. The lower court had awarded more than $69,000 in attorneys fees to the newspaper. The appeal is still pending.

While Black says it’s unlikely the city will appeal the award of attorneys’ fees, the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals can still overturn Sakamoto’s original ruling requiring the misconduct records to be released. Should that happen, Black said the city would not be required to pay up.

The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers has appealed Sakamoto’s ruling, but the court has yet to make a decision.

Assuming the law center prevails, Black said he will use the funds to continue the mission of the nonprofit. He initially asked for more than $60,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.

“The money will just go to further support the law center and its work,” Black said. “That means more lawsuits and more education of folks to help them challenge agencies that are denying access to public records.”

Civil Beat left a message with the city attorney’s office seeking comment Thursday afternoon, but did not receive a response.

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