By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Bill collectors hear the excuse countless times: “The check’s in the mail.”
But when it comes to rejecting freedom of information requests from the public, government agencies must actually mail the letters.
That’s what the Court of Appeal has ruled in reinstating an Ionia County lawsuit against the State Police by a motorist who was told a videotape of her traffic stop didn’t exist.
The controversy stems from a May 2008 incident when a trooper ticketed Nancy Prins’ passenger for failing to wear a seat belt in Boston Township. Prins filed a freedom of information request for the videotape of the traffic stop.
The State Police denied her request, saying that “any in-car video that may have existed is no longer available. Only kept 30 days and reused.”
But when the passenger appeared in court to contest the ticket, however, the prosecutor presented the videotape that the State Police had claimed no longer existed as evidence.
Prins then sued the State Police for violating the freedom of information law.
State law requires public bodies to provide a “full explanation of the reasons for the denial” and to tell requesters about their right to appeal or sue, according to the Attorney General’s office. That requirement includes “notification of the right to receive attorney fees and collect damages.”
Public agencies that fail to comply with the law face possible liability for compensatory damages, punitive damages of $500 and legal fees.
The law sets a 180-day deadline for lawsuits.
A lower-court judge tossed out Prins’ case, saying she waited too long to sue because she started the case 184 days after the State Police wrote its denial letter.
The Court of Appeals disagreed, saying the 180-day clock didn’t start to run until the letter was actually mailed.
“The Legislature intended that the public body undertake an affirmative step reasonably calculated to bring the denial notice to the attention of the requesting party,” Appeals Judge Elizabeth Gleicher said for the unanimous three-member panel.
The decision sends the case back to Ionia County Circuit Court for further proceedings.