Police agencies and district attorneys’ offices often receive requests from the press for various criminal records. Access to these records is governed primarily by state statutes and administrative rules. Under Oregon’s Public Records Laws, the record of an arrest or the report of a crime is generally available to the public. Records and reports remain confidential only if, and so long as, there is a clear need in a particular case to delay disclosure in the course of a specific investigation.
Public Records Laws:
What can be disclosed:
If there is no need to delay disclosure, the press may obtain the following information:
The arrested person’s name, age, residence, employment, marital status and similar biographical information:
- the offense with which the arrested person is charged;
- the terms upon which the arrested person was released from custody;
- the identity and biographical information concerning both the complaining party and the victim;
- the identity of the investigating and arresting agency and the length of the investigations;
- the circumstances of arrest, including time, place, resistance, pursuit and weapons used;
- such information as may be necessary to enlist public assistance in apprehending fugitives from justice.
This list is illustrative, not exclusive.
Limitations on Access to Public Records:
The principal limitations on access to information result both from attempts to protect a defendant’s right to a fair trial, and from the exemption in the public records law regarding disclosure of investigatory information compiled for criminal law purposes. This type of information is exempt, unless it is necessary for the public interest.
In interpreting this exemption, the Oregon Court of Appeals rejected two extreme positions: (1) that materials relating to criminal investigations are available if no prosecutions were initiated or all prosecutions were completed; and (2) material once exempt from disclosure is forever exempt. Instead, the court adopted a middle position, in which the agency possessing the information must identify various purposes for keeping such information secret. Thus, criminal investigatory information will not be disclosed if disclosure would:
- interfere with criminal prosecutions;
- deprive a defendant of the right to a fair trial;
- unreasonably invade personal privacy;
- reveal the identity of a confidential source, or confidential information supplied only by the confidential source;
- reveal non-routine investigative techniques or procedures;
- endanger the life or physical safety of law enforcement personnel.
Because police reports often contain information which, if released, would conflict with one or more of these reasons for secrecy, the press may be denied access to the reports themselves. Instead, the relevant agency will furnish only information from those reports that is not exempt from disclosure under the public records law.
Oregon law permits courts to consider pre-sentence reports before imposing sentence upon defendants convicted of crimes. These pre-sentence reports, prepared by the corrections division or community corrections probation officers, usually discuss the circumstances of the offense, the defendant’s social and family history, his or her present condition and environment and his or her criminal record. Often, pre-sentence reports also contain the results of psychological examinations of defendants and diagnostic opinions by the examining professionals. Under Oregon law, pre-sentence reports are not public records, and access is restricted to sentencing judges, the corrections division, the State Board of Parole, appellate or reviewing courts (when the information in the report is relevant to an issue before the court), the district attorney, the defendant, or his or her attorney and other persons or agencies having a legitimate professional interest in the information. Pre-sentence reports will not be released to the press.
When a person under the supervision of the corrections division (such as an inmate, parolee or person housed in a work release facility) is charged with a new crime, the corrections division, pursuant to its administrative rules, will adhere to the Bar-Press-Broadcasters guidelines for disclosure and reporting of information on criminal proceedings. For those guidelines, see Chapter 1, appendix A and appendix B. Oregon law generally limits access to the full compiled criminal history information kept by the Oregon State Police to law enforcement agencies and certain other government agencies. However, state law (ORS 181.555 and 181.560) also provides that any person, including a news reporter, can obtain some information on the criminal history of an individual.
Procedure for Obtaining Criminal History:
The procedure is to apply in writing to the Bureau of Criminal Identification of the Oregon State Police in Salem, identifying as clearly as possible the person about whose record the inquiry is being made. The bureau will give that person 14 days notice that an inquiry is being made about him. The delay is intended to give the person an opportunity to exercise his or her right to inspect his or her own criminal history and to have it corrected if it is wrong. At the end of the 14 days, the bureau will send to the person making the inquiry, information it may have about (a) any conviction of the subject in Oregon, and (b) any arrest in Oregon which is less than one year old and on which there has been no acquittal or dismissal. Included will be information on felonies, on any offense involving sexual misconduct, and on certain drug violations. Records of other misdemeanors will not be reported.
For this service the bureau is authorized to charge a fee for each inquiry. Anyone receiving this criminal history information should use it with care, because the law specifies that the State Police will release it based on similarity of name and description, without confirming it through comparison of fingerprints.
Setting Aside a Conviction or Record of Arrest:
Oregon law provides, under certain circumstances, that a conviction or record of arrest may be set aside. Under ORS 137.225, persons convicted of a class C felony, (except for specified child abuse offenses); possession of marijuana when that crime was punishable only as felony, crime punishable as either a felony or a misdemeanor; and any misdemeanor for which a jail sentence may be imposed may move to have conviction set aside. There are specific exceptions, however, when the offenses involve sexual abuse or child abuse. The statute also does not apply to traffic violations or traffic crimes.
A convicted person who qualifies, based on the type of offenses outlined above, after three years from the date of judgment, may apply to the court to set aside the conviction. The sentence must have been completed by then, and the person must have had no further legal problems. A person who is arrested but not charged within a year from the date of arrest or a person who was arrested and acquitted, at any time after the acquittal or dismissal of the case may apply, likewise to set aside the arrest.
The procedure involves applying to the court, supplying a copy of fingerprints to the District Attorney’s office to verify the identity of the person making application and, when the application is based upon a conviction, paying a fee of $80.00 through the state police office.
The statutes further provide that, unless the court finds clear and convincing evidence that granting the motion would not be in the best interest of justice, an order setting aside the record shall be granted. The defendant may then be considered not to have been convicted or arrested.
There is an exception to the statute, however, for purposes of a civil action in which truth is an element of a claim for relief or affirmation defense, which allows a party to apply to the court for an order requiring disclosure of the official records in the case in the interest of justice. Likewise, if a prosecutor or defendant in a case involving sealed records supplies an affidavit showing good cause, the court may order reopening and disclosure of any records sealed for the limited purpose of assisting in the investigation of the moving party.