Just like your typical police departments, police officers at private colleges have arrest powers. But unlike police forces such as CMPD, those private college departments are not subject to state public records laws. The North Carolina Supreme Court heard a case last week filed by a former Elon University student that disputes that. It has the attention of campuses and press groups across the country:
Three years ago, Nick Ochsner was looking into the arrest of another Elon student for underage drinking and resisting an officer. He heard campus police chased after the kid. Pretty compelling detail, he thought, to include in his report for the campus news program. So he asked for the police report, but it was missing a page.
“The problem was that there was nowhere in the document that the Elon campus police department gave me that said this student ran down the street, we tackled him, we arrested him for running away from us,” says Ochsner.
Elon police told him they gave him all they needed to. So he filed a lawsuit. That lawsuit has now ended up at the state supreme court. The court will decide whether Elon as a private university is subject to open records laws.
Beth Jones, a lawyer representing the school, argues the law is clear.
“The North Carolina Public Records Act applies to public records that are made or received in conducting business with the North Carolina government or an agency of the North Carolina government. And it doesn’t include private entities such as Elon University, which is a private, non-profit, higher education institution,” says Jones.
Frank LoMonte with the Student Press Law Center has heard this argument before. Every year the group gets complaints from reporters trying to get records from campus police. He says arrest powers make private school police departments agents of the state.
“There are many, many private institutions that maintain a police force that for all intents and purposes work like a state agency. They have powers of arrest. They can even take people lives, even hold people in custody. And yet the one law they don’t have to obey is the public records act,” says LoMonte.
And that’s the crux of the argument the North Carolina Supreme Court heard last week.
While Elon officials disagree with that, they say the information that was released to Ochsner did meet the open records laws required of public police departments.
The state supreme court is expected to rule in a few months.