From today’s story, which is generating a few comments online.
- I’ve also posted a few related letters to Gov. Mary Fallin at the bottom. One is from the District Attorneys Council. The other is from The Sentencing Project.
BY PAUL MONIES
Published: August 18, 2011
The Pardon and Parole Board recommended Wednesday a convicted drug dealer from Kingfisher who is serving life without parole should have his sentence commuted to 42 years.
The recommendation for Larry E. Yarbrough, 61, now goes to Gov. Mary Fallin. Yarbrough has been in prison since 1997. The board recommended a commuted sentence for Yarbrough in 2002, but then-Gov. Frank Keating denied the request.
The five-member board issued a 3-2 split decision at a hearing room packed with Yarbrough’s family members and supporters at Hillside Community Corrections Center in Oklahoma City.
Two board members voted not to commute the sentence. Two others recommended Yarbrough’s sentence be commuted to time served. One member said the sentence should be commuted to 42 years. If Fallin approves the board’s recommendation, Yarbrough could be eligible for parole next year.
Yarbrough, a former restaurant owner, was sentenced to life without parole in 1997 on a cocaine trafficking charge. Previously, he served time in prison in the early 1980s on convictions for LSD and marijuana distribution. Yarbrough also received probation for a felony conviction of receiving stolen property.
State law requires a life-without-parole sentence for drug-trafficking charges after prior convictions for two or more felonies.
In a videoconferencing appearance before the board, Yarbrough said he’s been a model prisoner who counseled young men entering prison. He said he planned to move to California with family if he ever got released from prison.
“I have turned my life around and bettered myself,” said Yarbrough, who is at the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville. “I have taken every drug program they have.”
Yarbrough’s family and supporters said his sentence was too harsh.
“He’s served his time already, and he just needs to be out,” said Yarbrough’s niece, Rhonda Campbell, of Edmond. “I know my uncle is all about the law, and he does respect the people, but this was too much for that type of felony. We’re just going to keep praying and keep positive.”
Aaron Cooper, a spokesman for Fallin, said the governor would have no comment until she reviews the board’s recommendation for Yarbrough.
Mike Fields, the district attorney for a five-county area including Kingfisher County, spoke before the board Wednesday morning. Fields asked them not to commute Yarbrough’s sentence. He cited Yarbrough’s criminal history and the board’s power to consider the commutation of life-without-parole sentences. Fields said the matter should be left to the Legislature.
“In our criminal justice system, there’s only one sentence that means exactly what it says, and that’s life without parole,” Fields said in a phone interview. “I think the public, victims’ families and law enforcement officers should have assurance that life without parole truly means life without parole. They can’t have that assurance if the Pardon and Parole Board makes it a routine practice of pulling out life-without-parole inmates and recommending commutation.”
Among those supporting Yarbrough was Dennis Will, of Hennessey, a former juror in Yarbrough’s 1997 conviction for cocaine distribution. Will provided a letter to the board detailing his concerns with the jury deliberations.
“After I learned he was being given life without parole, I was upset about it,” Will said after the hearing. “I lost it, because we were not told before we voted.”
Debra K. Hampton, Yarbrough’s attorney, said she has talked to two other members of the jury who shared Will’s concerns. The other jurors did not want to reveal their identities out of fear of retaliation, she said.
Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, said Yarbrough’s case is a “poster child” for extreme sentencing guidelines for drug charges. She said it costs the state an estimated $23,000 a year to house an inmate.
“Taxpayer dollars are being squandered on sentences for nonviolent crimes,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she plans to reintroduce legislation next year to stop life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Her prior bills on the matter did not make it out of committee.
A recent draft report by the American Law Institute noted the severity of life-without-parole sentences. The Washington-based organization, made up of 4,000 lawyers, judges and law professors, publishes model statutes and restatements of law.
“Short of the death penalty, in nearly every American jurisdiction in the early 21st century, a life term of imprisonment without the possibility of release is now the most severe punishment authorized in the criminal code,” the institute said its “Model Penal Code: Sentencing” report released earlier this year.
My colleague Carrie Coppernoll had an interesting story today on upcoming changes to the state’s prescription drug monitoring database, which is administered by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.
Lawmakers have expanded the prescription drug monitoring program since it came into service in 2006. It now monitors several types of prescription painkillers, too:
In 2006, the state narcotics bureau pumped up its Prescription Monitoring Program.
Before, doctors only had to report Schedule II controlled substances, such as morphine and OxyContin. Starting July 1 of that year, doctors had to report Schedules II, III, IV and V, which included a variety of drugs, from Valium to Xanax.
The latest expansion compels pharmacists to submit prescription information for certain drugs in real time by Jan. 1, 2012. Currently, they have to submit the information within 24 hours.
Law enforcement officials say the changes will help catch illicit users of prescription drugs and help prevention. Here’s what Darrell Weaver, director of the OBNDD, told Coppernoll:
“Prescription drugs are killing more Oklahomans than any illicit drugs,” Weaver said. “We simply cannot arrest our way out of this.”
Senate Bill 1159, by Republicans Sen. Anthony Sykes and Rep. Randy Terrill, expanded the information collected under the PMP program to include the address and date of birth of patients getting a prescription for certain classes of drugs.
Here’s what the PMP program collects on each prescription, according to Oklahoma law and the administrative rules of OBNDD:
A. Section 2-309C. A. A dispenser of a Schedule II, III, IV or V controlled dangerous substance, except Schedule V substances that contain any detectable quantity of pseudoephedrine, its salts or optical isomers, or salts of optical isomers shall transmit to a central repository designated by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control using the American Society for Automation in Pharmacy’s (ASAP) Telecommunications Format for Controlled Substances version designated in rules by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, the following information for each dispensation:
1. Recipient’s name;
2. Recipient’s address;
3. Recipient’s date of birth;
4. Recipient’s identification number;
5. National Drug Code number of the substance dispensed;
6. Date of the dispensation;
7. Quantity of the substance dispensed;
8. Prescriber’s United States Drug Enforcement Agency registration number; and
9. Dispenser’s registration number; and
10. Other information as required by administrative rule.
B. The information required by this section shall be transmitted:
1. In a format or other media designated acceptable by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control; and
2. Within twenty-four (24) hours of the time that the substance is dispensed. Beginning January 1, 2012, all information shall be submitted on a real-time log.
In case you missed it, I’m re-posting a version of my Sunday story about how state agencies have a combined $1.2 billion holed up in their revolving funds.
It looks like some lawmakers are already taking action, including Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, who announced on Twitter yesterday that he plans to amend House Bill 1086 to ask the Office of State Finance to post monthly revolving fund balances on the state’s new data.ok.gov site.
Then, the Associated Press reported yesterday that Republican legislative leaders were close to a deal to divert $5.2 million in a Corrections Department revolving fund to make up a shortfall in the current fiscal year. [UPDATE: Read the Tulsa World story on March 3 by Barbara Hoberock.]
If you go to our Revolving Fund balances, you’ll see on Page 6 the Corrections Department had about $7.15 million in their Corrections Industries revolving fund as of December 2010.
Here’s the part of the document that deals with the Corrections Department: (Click for a larger version)
The Corrections Industries fund grew from $1.8 million in 2008 to $5.56 million in 2009. I’m not sure what limitations are on that fund, but the Corrections Department seeks additional money each year to deal with prison overcrowding. Spokesman Jerry Massie said the Corrections Industries fund has a current balance of about $6 million. Lawmakers are meeting today to go over a possible agreement, he said.
Here’s Sunday’s story:
By PAUL MONIES
As Oklahoma lawmakers and Gov. Mary Fallin grapple with an estimated $500 million shortfall in the annual budget, state agencies have a combined $1.2 billion stashed away in their revolving funds.
Leading the way is the Transportation Department’s revolving fund for county roads and bridges, which had more than $159 million. The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center had almost $63 million in its education and general revenue revolving fund. The boll weevil eradication revolving fund had a balance of $2 million.
At the other end of the scale, the minority business development revolving fund at the Commerce Department had just $1. The Agriculture Department’s junior livestock auction revolving fund totaled $43.
Those figures are from the Office of State Finance, which provided the December balances for the last three years for more than 500 revolving funds at state agencies. The information was collected via an open records request by The Oklahoman.
Revolving funds are not part of the annual appropriations from the general revenue fund and are usually funded by fees or other sources, said state Comptroller Brenda Bolander. Depending on how they were set up, some revolving funds have designated functions and can only spend money on certain activities.
Other revolving funds might collect fees for one purpose and divert a portion of those fees to the state’s general revenue fund, Bolander said. That’s how revolving funds work at some of the regulatory boards such as the accountancy board.
Lawmakers tap revolving funds
Still, spending from many revolving funds is at the discretion of each state agency. Lawmakers also tap revolving funds to make up shortfalls in other agencies. That can pave the way for some interesting accounting games during budget negotiations, said Jonathan Small, fiscal policy director at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank based in Oklahoma City.
“The revolving funds are where a lot of this discussion needs to be had,” said Small, a former budget analyst at the Office of State Finance. “That’s a whole lot of money for us to be hearing that oxygen masks are going to be taken off children and old people are going to be lying in the street.”
Many times, the revolving funds are an afterthought in budget discussions, Small said.
“In the budget hearings, most of the discussion is about what appropriations the agency needs and not necessarily their other funding sources,” Small said. “A lot of times the members don’t have a clue about what’s in an agency’s revolving fund. The agency knows way more about what’s in there and what’s spent than the legislator does.”
The money from the wire transmitter fee revolving fund at the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control was central to recent allegations of bribery against former Democratic state Sen. Debbe Leftwich and Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore.
Revolving fund allegations
Prosecutors allege Terrill won legislative approval last year to move money from the wire transfer fee fund to the state medical examiner’s office to pay for a new position that was offered to Leftwich as a bribe. In exchange, Leftwich would agree not to run for re-election to her Oklahoma City senate seat and clear the way for a Republican candidate backed by Terrill, prosecutors charged.
Both have denied wrongdoing.
That wire transfer fee revolving fund comes from a flat, $5 fee up to the first $500 wired from places such as Western Union, plus one percent of any amount above that. The fee is not charged for wiring money from banks.
The wire transmitter revolving fund, which was created in 2009, had a balance of $2.59 million at the end of December, according to the Office of State Finance.
Darrell Weaver, director of the narcotics bureau, said about 30 percent of his agency’s funding comes from annual appropriations by the Legislature. The rest comes from fees that go to his agency’s revolving funds.
“We need those funds to be able to operate,” Weaver said. “For me, it’s just trying to keep revenue sources to keep my agency going and be effective.”
By far, the largest chunk of money in revolving funds comes in the state Transportation Department. The department had 12 revolving funds with a combined balance of more than $253 million in December 2010.
Mike Patterson, deputy director of the Transportation Department, said that money goes to a variety of transportation projects. Among those are rural transit subsidies, machinery and equipment leased to counties, and general road and bridge construction.
Patterson said lawmakers haven’t recently tapped Transportation Department funds for other uses because there is broad support for improved roads and bridges. But last year, as part of the budget deal, $65 million from the department’s revolving funds was exchanged for extra authorization to sell $65 million in bonds.
“We traded cash for bonds then, and the governor’s budget for 2012 has a similar deal for $100 million,” Patterson said. “Both of those we can handle. We’ll have to make a few tough decisions in terms of some operations, but we have such a large amount of bondable activities that we can handle the $100 million.”
OU’s Health Sciences Center’s main revolving fund had more than $63 million as of December. Catherine Bishop, OU’s vice president for public affairs, said the fund is the main source of general operations for the Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City. Money for that fund comes from a range of sources, including state appropriations, student tuition and fees, endowment revenue distributions and overhead reimbursements from grants and contracts, she said.
Joe Harris, director of the Oklahoma Boll Weevil Eradication Office, said his agency’s revolving fund was set up by state law for ongoing operations and to provide contingency funds if another boll weevil outbreak happens in the state. Boll weevils can devastate cotton crops.
“We’re self-funded by the cotton producers, so we’re not a drag on the state’s budget in any way,” Harris said. “We and other cotton-producing states that have eradication programs have contingency money set aside on the off chance that we do have an emergency. Hopefully we don’t have to ever use that emergency money.”
Harris said money for the revolving fund, which had a December balance of $2 million, comes from a $2-per-acre fee on cotton harvested and sold.
At more than 500 revolving funds, the number of revolving funds probably could be revisited, especially when some have low balances and little activity, Bolander said.
“We are usually pretty strict with the agencies,” Bolander said. “We will not give them a revolving fund unless they have legislation authorizing it. There are a few exceptions, but our general rule is: fewer funds are better.”
In case you missed it, you should check out our stories and interactive map that launched over the weekend.
The Oklahoman staff writer Bob Doucette and NewsOK’s Nick Tankersley, along with several other reporters and editors, put together some statistics on Oklahoma City homicides from the last four years.
- Oklahoma City Homicide Map
- Minorities, men make up most Oklahoma City homicides
- Mother seeks justice for slain son
As well as a look back at recent homicides, the map and data will be updated by our Breaking News reporters in 2011 and beyond.
For those interested in the technical side of things, Nick built the homicide map using Django, an open-source application that was developed to help newsrooms put interactive web pages, databases and maps together quickly. This isn’t the first time we’ve used Django for a newsroom application. Our “story walls” from the State Fair and OU and OSU games also were built using Django. Digital Managing Editor Alan Herzberger has more on the Story Walls here.
We’ve also used Django internally to enter election results and to keep track of candidate biographies for the 2010 elections. Nick created a public search for those candidates on our Politics page in the fall.
My coworker Matt Dinger has an interesting story in today’s paper about how Oklahoma City police have designated an incident report written about an investigation into the killing of a woman in northwest Oklahoma City.
Rather than release reports from the first officers on the scene, the police decided that a report written by the officer who put up crime scene tape should be the primary report. All others, including those that may contain more information about the death, have been designated “supplemental” reports and not subject to the Open Records Act:
Reports from the officers who went inside the house, a police lieutenant and the watch commander, are considered supplemental and are not public record, Oklahoma City police Sgt. Jennifer Wardlow said Monday.
I understand the police need to keep certain details secret during an investigation, but this strikes me as a rather underhanded way for the police to control the normal flow of information. What do you think?
My colleague Ken Raymond has an interesting story in today’s paper about a new law that gives the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation the authority to share cold case files with people outside of law enforcement. From Ken’s story:
Jerry Beaty was on an island paradise when he learned his world had gone to hell.
“I got a phone call at 9 o’clock in the morning on February 1st and was told that my house had burned, everything I owned was gone, my wife was dead and both my dogs were dead,” he said Wednesday. “I literally had nothing left but the suitcases I had with me.”
Beaty, a scuba expert, was on Grand Cayman in the western Caribbean in 2005, inspecting damage left behind by Hurricane Ivan several months before. His wife, Shawn Beaty, 50, had stayed at their Bryan County home.
Just like that, she was dead. His wife succumbed to smoke inhalation. The blaze that killed her, Jerry Beaty later learned, was set intentionally, making her the victim of a homicide.
For more than five years, her case has gone unsolved. Beaty has pushed for answers — hiring a private investigator, working with authorities, launching a successful petition drive to get his wife’s case before a grand jury — but no one has been arrested.
Now he’s getting help from an unlikely source. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation announced Wednesday it has turned over records from the case to the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute at Auburn University-Montgomery.
“Cold cases … are so labor-intensive,” said Jessica Brown, OSBI spokeswoman. “Any help we can get on a case such as this, we’ll take. We’ve talked to people. We’ve done interviews. We’ve done polygraphs. But we have nothing more to go on.
You can read OSBI’s press release about the new law here.
On a related note, I came across this new website last night from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation:
It offers some basic information about unsolved murders, crimes and missing persons, as well as a searchable database to narrow the information to crimes in certain areas of Colorado. The site was launched earlier this month, said Audrey Simkins, a criminal intelligence analyst with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, in an e-mail:
The database is a collection of unsolved homicides, long-term missing persons and unidentified remains cases in Colorado which are 3 years or more old dating back to 1970. In 2007, legislation was passed in [Colorado] which required Colorado law enforcement to provide minimal case information to the CBI for the creation of the Cold Case Database. Over the last three years the CBI has worked cooperatively with local law enforcement to ensure all the cases we are aware of meeting this criteria are included in the database. In time, I hope to have a short narrative and photograph of the victim to accompany each case listed in the database.
The OSBI has an “Unsolved Cases” page, too. It lists more than 20 cases, although there’s no mention of the most recent high-profile unsolved cases such as the killing of a pastor in Anadarko or the shooting of two girls in Weeletka.
Of course, it’s always a tricky balancing act for investigators to offer information about unsolved crimes. Some details might be known by only the perpetrators, while other details might help people come forward with new information. Colorado’s Simkins discussed that dilemma in her e-mail to me:
One thing we have to remember is that these cases are all unsolved. That being said, we must be cautious about the type of information we release in regards to these cases so that one day in the future we might be able to successfully prosecute the perpetrator and bring some resolution to the families. That is why working closely with our local law enforcement was so important during the development of this site.
Colorado’s site could offer a model for other states like Oklahoma in collecting cold case information in one place.
I just had a chance to review the debate from Monday on a bill to limit what information would be available in autopsy reports. (It starts at the 1:14:00 mark on the video replay.)
In the end, after a barrage of questions, the author of House Bill 3155, Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Tuttle, pulled the bill and said she’d try again next year. Capitol reporter Michael McNutt has the story here.
Osborn said the bill was a request from the Grady County District Attorney Bret Burns and was worked on by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the District Attorneys Council and the state Medical Examiner’s office. They believe the media, and by extension, the public, had gotten too many “gory details” from autopsy reports in several recent unsolved murder cases.
HB 3155 would allow a district attorney or law enforcement agency to hold on to details of a homicide until the report has been entered into evidence in court or a suspect has been convicted. From the bill summary:
Clarifies that the Oklahoma Open Record Act does not apply to information in an autopsy report in which the manner of death is homicide or pending until one of the following:
· The autopsy report is admitted into evidence in a court of law;
· The person charged with the homicide is convicted;
· It is determined that the person believed to be the perpetrator of the homicide is deceased;
· The district attorney determines that either no criminal charges will be filed in the matter; or
· The district attorney determines that confidentiality of the information is no longer necessary to preserve the integrity of the investigation.
Opponents said that would give too much power to law enforcement agencies, who are notoriously close-lipped about investigations anyway. The Freedom of Information Oklahoma blog has a good recap of how autopsy reports are used in everyday journalism here. We used them extensively for our award-winning series in 2009 called Dying Too Young.
Osborn faced questions on her bill from both sides of the aisle. A few allies, like Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon, tried to offer her support, including this exchange:
Armes: Rep. Osborn, what sells newspapers in your mind?
Osborn: Grisly details.
Armes: Do you remember the OJ simpson trial?
Osborn: I do.
Armes: Did that create people like Greta van Susteren and things like that? My question is: Grisly details obviously, wouldn’t you agree, sell newspapers? Does it also help catch the bad guy?
Osborn: No, and a lot of times it does lead to false confessors.
Armes: In a murder trial, especially a grisly murder trial, would you rather sell newspapers or catch the bad guy?
Osborn: Well, I think in the interest of public safety, you’d rather make sure this perpetrator didn’t act on his crime again, and No. 2, if I was the family members, I’d much rather have justice for my deceased loved one.
Still, most of the questions were about transparency, accountability and keeping the information available to families of murder victims. The next speaker of the House, Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, had some reservations about the structure of the bill and what it would close off:
Steele: Do you feel that by chipping away at the information that is made available to the public that we’re eliminating a layer of accountability that we should probably keep in place?
Osborn: I understand where you’re going and I appreciate the question, but I truly believe that public safety and justice trumps in this one small, gray area of the four or five heinous cold cases in Oklahoma a year.
Steele: Rep. Osborn, in relation to the questions of jeopardizing an investigation or causing the law enforcement agencies to investigate leads that aren’t accurate, wouldn’t you also agree that the public is much more helpful, or at least helpful more times than not, in providing information and data to these law enforcement agencies based on the information they receive from the media?
Osborn: I appreciate that comment, but I will say that I don’t believe that the public necessarily needs to hear that somebody was nearly decapitated and that their hair was burned. I don’t think that that necessarily, one of those items would have helped as much as just hearing that someone was brutally murdered, who it was, when it happened. And I still don’t know that would have helped at all to have the public know those grisly details.
Later on, Rep. Al McAffrey, D-Oklahoma City, asked Osborn about the unsolved murders of two Weelekta girls in 2008. Some of the details of those killings were in autopsy reports, but McAffrey said that contributed little to the case’s unsolved status.
“The big problem was that the crime scene was not protected,” said McAffrey, a funeral director. “Everybody and their dogs were there, so they had nothing to go on. I understand what you’re talking about, but the question is: Is the report from the autopsy really that valuable to keep secrets from the public? That’s really what it comes down to. Because I see autopsy reports quite often, and there’s not much on an autopsy report that really makes a difference in a crime.”
The U.S. Census Bureau released a slick map application this week that lets you track 2010 Census participation by city, county or zip code.
I have to admit, we got our Census forms last week, and I still haven’t filled them out yet. If you’re in the same position, be careful of a scam going around that we reported on today. You do not have to provide your Social Security number on any Census form. And the Census Bureau has not yet started their door-to-door canvassing of households who haven’t returned their forms via the mail.
The agency’s regional office put out a press release today on the issue:
It is important to remember that door to door follow-up Census operations with households will not begin until late spring. These follow up operations will be conducted by official Census takers. If you have any questions about Census operations in your area, you may call the Kansas City Regional Census Center at (816) 994-2000. Here are some tips on how you can identify an official Census taker.
An official 2010 Census taker:
–Must present an ID Badge containing a Department of Commerce watermark and expiration date.
–May also be carrying a bag with a 2010 Census logo.
–Will provide you with their supervisor’s contact information and/or the local census office phone number for verification, if asked.
–Will only ask you questions appearing on the official 2010 Census form. If you need assistance completing your Census form, you may call (866) 872-6868.
Census answers are confidential and protected by federal law. All U.S. Census Bureau employees have taken an oath and are subject to 5 years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine if they disclose any information that could identify you or your household. Answers will only be used for statistical purposes. The 2010 Census will ask for name, gender, age, race, ethnicity, relationship, and whether the home is owned or rented and how many people live in the home. The 2010 Census also asks for your phone number. If question responses are not understood, the household will be called.
Also, Census takers will:
–NOT ask for your social security number, bank account number or credit card number.
–NOT ask any information about your taxes or income.
–NEVER solicit donations or contact you by e-mail.
–ONLY ask you the questions listed on the Census questionnaire.
My colleague Johnny Johnson has a wrap-up today of the most dangerous intersections worked by Oklahoma City police in 2009. For most Oklahoma City drivers, the top 10 locations won’t be much of a surprise. For example, I avoid the Quail Springs Mall area as much as I can, especially during the holiday season.
I plotted the top locations on a Google Map, which you can see by going to our Right to Know page.
Following on from today’s story about the costs and practices surrounding the Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s video cameras, I’ve got some more background as to how the in-dash footage became closed to the public.
Before the Legislature exempted the patrol’s audio and video from the Oklahoma Open Records Act in 2005, anyone could buy a copy of a video for $25. Here’s the part of the legislation that was removed:
E. The Commissioner and any other officers of the Department as the Commissioner may designate are hereby authorized to prepare copies of videotape recordings which are not exempt law enforcement records, as prescribed in Section 24A.8 of Title 51 of the Oklahoma Statutes, when held as records of the Department, and deliver upon request to any person a copy of a videotape recording, for a fee of Twenty-five Dollars ($25.00) for each copy. Any monies collected by the Department pursuant to this subsection shall be deposited to the credit of the Department of Public Safety Revolving Fund.
According to Mark Thomas of the Oklahoma Press Association, one of the reasons DPS asked the legislature to remove that part of the law followed a request from a reality TV production company for every video of every trooper on every shift. The agency couldn’t fulfill that request and asked for the change in law.
Of course, the agency also had recently lost a court case on the subject. Here’s the story from our archives:
Highway patrol ordered to stop withholding tapes
By Nolan Clay
Thursday, March 3, 2005
Edition: City, Section: NEWS, Page 6A
A judge has barred the Oklahoma Highway Patrol from keeping videotapes of traffic arrests secret.
The ruling Friday came after an Oklahoma City attorney complained about a new restriction on the release of such videotapes.
“They don’t want these videos out. … They use any excuse that they can, even bad ones,” said attorney Stephen G. Fabian Jr., who specializes in drunken-driving cases.
Fabian has used the state Open Records Act to gather hundreds of videotapes from police departments and the patrol.
“We continue to find that many officers make up evidence and exaggerate their testimony about the events. These tapes are extremely important to a citizen who is wrongly accused,” he said.
The attorney sued the state Department of Public Safety in January after officials refused to release a videotape of a drunken-driving arrest. Officials said the attorney had to get the driver’s written consent first.
Oklahoma County District Judge Noma Gurich struck down that requirement as unlawful.
The Department of Public Safety said it was trying to prevent identity theft. An attorney for the agency told the judge the videotape had “personal information” that must be kept private under a federal law.
The department’s attorney said the videotape revealed the vehicle’s tag number and the driver’s image, address, full name and license number.
The attorney also said the driver in the videotape admits to “dipping Skoal” smokeless tobacco. The attorney said that “could be interpreted as ‘medical information’ that is considered protected ‘highly restricted personal information.’”
Meanwhile, if this issue comes up during the next session of the legislature, advocates for changing the law might have an ally in a former state commissioner of public safety. Bob Ricks, now the chief of police in Edmond, said he understands why DPS needs to keep the video footage out of the public realm — at least for a short time.
“Once a situation is over, I don’t have any hesitancy releasing those types of materials,” Ricks told me last week. “But initially you need to protect the information until an administrative or internal inquiry is over. Our policy in Edmond is we are prompt to release those things that don’t appear to be concerned with an administrative inquiry. You’ve got protect the rights of all involved, but I also believe in the First Amendment and getting information to the public as quickly as possible.”
For more on highway patrol video policies in other states, check out the Tulsa World story here.