A judge is deciding whether Brigham Young University’s police department should be required to comply with Utah’s open records laws.
The law enforcement arm of the private university, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has contended that it is exempt from state records laws — and the Utah Records Committee agreed.
The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016 filed a lawsuit in 3rd District Court, arguing that the police force should be open to public records requests because it has “full-spectrum” law enforcement authority under state law. This means BYU officers may stop, search, arrest and use physical force against people, just as any other sworn officer in the state — but currently BYU police do not face the same requirements for transparency.
On Monday, attorneys for both BYU and The Tribune asked for summary judgment in the case, with each side requesting Judge Laura Scott to rule on whether the university should have to comply with Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).
Steven Sandberg, an attorney for BYU, argued that the police department was created and funded by a private university, and therefore, should not be considered a “government entity” as defined in GRAMA law.
Sandburg asked Scott to rule that BYU police are not subject to public records laws, and suggested the judge could add language requesting lawmakers to re-examine the issue and clarify the language in the law.
Tribune attorney Michael O’Brien argued in response that because the university department derived its policing powers from legislative action more than 35 years ago, it was the state who established the department — and therefore it is a public entity.
“They can’t be a police deparmtent without the involvement of the state,” he argued.
Scott did not immediately rule on the issue, saying she would file a written ruling by mid-June or early July.
The judge has ruled once in The Tribune’s favor in the case in January 2017, when she denied a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by both the state and BYU.
The case stems from a public records request submitted by a Tribune reporter in 2016 amid allegations that BYU had disciplined students who report sex crimes if they were violating the school’s Honor Code at the time of the assault. The code bans alcohol, coffee and premarital sex, and it regulates students’ appearance and interactions with the opposite sex.
BYU police released some records, but refused to release records of communication between the department and the Mormon school’s Honor Code and Title IX offices.
The university police have said they do not conduct investigations for the Honor Code Office. However, The Tribune has obtained internal BYU documents that show a BYU police lieutenant used his access to Provo police records, via a countywide law enforcement database, for an Honor Code investigation into the conduct of a student who had reported a sexual assault to Provo police.
The Department of Public Safety spent a year investigating how BYU officers access and share their own reports and the records of other Utah County police agencies. While their investigation was completed last July, the Utah attorney general’s office has been reviewing the case ever since — and the findings have not yet been made public.