PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence Journal suffered a legal defeat on Monday as the R.I. Supreme Court denied its request for Rhode Island State Police records relating to a 2012 underage drinking incident involving the son of then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
The Journal sued the Rhode Island Department of Public Safety, the State Police, and Public Safety Commissioner Col. Steven O’Donnell, claiming they had violated the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA). That law, last overhauled in 2012, weighs the public’s right to know against an individual’s privacy interests.
Judge Gilbert Indeglia wrote the ruling released Monday, upholding the denial of records by a lower-court judge.
The incident dates back to May 28, 2012, when Caleb Chafee hosted a party at his parents’ farm property in Exeter. Some underage people who were there consumed alcohol and, at some point later, an underage girl left the party and had to be rushed to the hospital for alcohol-related illness.
State police troopers went to the Exeter farm, and their investigation – comprised of some 180 pages of records, interviews and evidence – resulted in Caleb, then 18, being charged with furnishing or procuring alcoholic beverages for underage persons.
The governor’s son pleaded no contest in August of that year, paid a $500 fine, and was ordered to complete 30 hours of community service.
Governor Chafee said his son accepted responsibility for his actions. He told Eyewitness News after his son’s sentencing, “It’s a continuing challenge for parents that have teenagers — just know those are difficult years — but Caleb’s doing well. He just completed an outdoor course where he got high marks in leadership. And I’m proud of him.”
Caleb’s record was expunged by a District Court judge in March 2013.
Providence Journal reporter Amanda Milkovits asked Col. O’Donnell for State Police reports about the incident, in an email: “This is a public report, regarding the responses and actions of public employees. It’s in the public interest to know how the situation was handled regarding the governor’s son — especially since the state police answer directly to the governor. This is a matter of transparency.”
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Her request was denied. On June 25, the Department of Public Safety told her, at the time, the records she wanted had been exempt from disclosure “due to an ongoing criminal investigation and/or prosecution”, and they “could reasonably be expected to be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
A state trooper, the court wrote, passed copies of some of the records with some information censored to a radio talk show host (Matt Allen of WPRO-AM, who was not named in the filing).
They revealed a demand from Caleb Chafee that the girl who was sick from drinking too much booze to be removed from the premises, and that nobody would call 911 until she was gone.
Milkovits asked for more from Col. O’Donnell on August 21, 2012, when Caleb Chafee was charged with a crime. Again, denied: “Rhode Island General Law 38-2-2 excludes records identifiable to an individual in any files and law enforcement records,” which would invade personal privacy, the Public Safety Department said.
The department said the court summons and a violation complaint related to the matter were available publicly.
The Journal made repeated appeals to the department, leading to a complaint filed in Providence County Superior Court in October of that year.
By the next spring, a justice determined that though Caleb Chafee’s criminal record had been expunged, it didn’t prevent the Journal from getting the records — but said the newspaper had not “demonstrate[d]… that alleged government impropriety might have occurred” and determined that “disclosure would not advance the public interest”.
During ensuing court proceedings, the Journal said the public interest was increased by the fact the state’s “social host” law may have been violated, and the fact of the close relationship of the state police with the governor and his family.
The Rhode Island Supreme Court said in the end, they saw no merit that Caleb Chafee’s being a public figure – the son of the then-governor of Rhode Island – entitled him to lesser privacy.
“[I]s there a good reason the people shouldn’t see what the state police did?” the Journal’s lawyer said in oral arguments.
The Court said its response was in the affirmative.
Response and reactions
Col. O’Donnell told Eyewitness News Monday, “We respect the court’s decision and we respect the Providence Journal.”
Eyewitness News spoke with the RI American Civil Liberties Union Monday about the court’s ruling. According to executive director Steven Brown, the ACLU is “very disappointed by the ruling.”
“This court decision really reduces the public’s ability to gain access to records,” he said.
The Journal’s executive editor David Butler said they share the same disappointment as the ACLU – and the New England First Amendment Coalition – in the court’s decision to weigh Caleb Chafee’s privacy rights over the public’s right to know how a police investigation has been conducted.
“In this instance, however, we think that the Supreme Court went way too far in protecting privacy rights,” Butler said.
According to Brown, one option is to change state law when it comes to open records.
Annie Shalvey contributed to this report.