The city and Honolulu Police Department have been ordered to pay attorney’s fees and costs totaling more than $83,000 in the latest round of legal sparring over whether police misconduct records should be available for public scrutiny.

Circuit Judge Gary Chang issued a ruling Monday awarding The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest another $83,375 in a case that has been going on more than eight years.

In 2013, Civil Beat filed a lawsuit against the city and HPD seeking 12 disciplinary files for officers who had been suspended for egregious misconduct. The Circuit Court agreed the files were public under Hawaii’s open records law and ordered the city to release them.

The police department paid $43,607 in attorneys fees and costs at the time but the decision was appealed by the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers in 2014.

This political cartoon by John Pritchett was published in 2014 when the Civil Beat Law Center won a major ruling to release misconduct records of police officers who had been suspended for wrongdoing. John Pritchett/Civil Beat/2014

In 2016, the Hawaii Supreme Court rejected arguments that police suspensions can never be public records and sent the case back to the Circuit Court judge to balance the public interest against the officers’ privacy interests for each file.

At that point, Civil Beat was required to pay SHOPO $614 for the union’s costs. HPD must now reimburse Civil Beat as part of Monday’s ruling.

That brings the total cost to taxpayers since the litigation began to $126,982.

It took Chang several years to review the files and they were finally made public in January. During that time, SHOPO continued to haggle over what should and shouldn’t be released, so the legal briefs and court hearings continued.

By law, once the city denies a request, it is responsible for any attorney’s fees incurred in litigation that challenges the denial. And the city supported SHOPO’s involvement in the case despite Civil Beat’s objection.

Brian Black, executive director of the law center, said the law center doesn’t seek fee awards in every case but does so when the government agency continues to fight the public’s right to have access to records.

“When agencies are defiantly secretive,” he said, “the only remedy is the award of attorney’s fees and costs.”

The awards “emphasize for agencies that there are consequences for delaying access to the people’s records for months or years. Without these awards, government agencies could deny requests for government records with impunity because it would be too expensive to challenge the denial in court.”

He thinks the public should demand that government agencies act in the best interest of the public and release records when they’re supposed to. Black noted that Hawaii’s public records law — the Uniform Information Practices Act — demands that “the formation and conduct of public policy — the discussions, deliberations, decisions, and action of government agencies — shall be conducted as openly as possible.”

In another public interest ruling earlier this month, Circuit Judge Jeffrey Crabtree ordered the city to pay the law center $25,826 in attorney’s fees and costs because the law center had to file suit to get the prosecutor’s office to release body-worn camera video in connection with the officer-involved shooting of Iremamber Sykap. The 16-year-old was shot and killed by police after a pursuit and the car he was driving was finally pulled over in Waikiki.

“If agencies make better decisions at the outset, taxpayers won’t be forced to pay for somebody else’s attorney,” Black said.

The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is an independent organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar, who is also CEO and publisher of Civil Beat. Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler sits on its board of directors.
Read Judge Gary Chang’s order:

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