The University of Notre Dame Police Department can no longer operate in secret, according a ruling by the Indiana Court of Appeals.
In its decision on Tuesday, the appellate court reversed a lower court's ruling that the police department was exempt from complying with state open-records laws because it is affiliated with a private institution.
Tuesday's ruling is the result of a lawsuit filed by ESPN investigative reporter Paula Lavigne. Lavigne and ESPN filed a series of public records requests beginning in September 2014 seeking any possible incident reports involving 275 Notre Dame football and men's basketball players from 2009 to 2014. The requests were denied by the police department on the grounds that it was not a public law enforcement agency subject to the Indiana Access to Public Records Act, or APRA.
ESPN sued Notre Dame on Jan. 15, 2015, asking a trial court to rule that the police department was a public agency and that it should fulfill the requests. In sum, ESPN argued that because the Notre Dame police department holds all of the characteristics of a law enforcement agency as defined by Indiana open-records laws, it should be considered a public agency. On April 20, the trial court decided in Notre Dame's favor, ruling overall that the police department was protected under Notre Dame's status as a private university and was therefore not a public agency.
ESPN's appeal to the appellate court carried its basic argument forward: The Notre Dame police department operates in the exact manner that other public police agencies do and therefore should be beholden to public records laws.
The appellate court agreed on Tuesday, defining the Notre Dame police department as a public law enforcement agency as defined by APRA. The court did not compel Notre Dame to immediately fulfill the records requests; rather, it instructed the trial court to determine which of the records requested should be provided under the police department's new designation as a public law enforcement agency subject to open-records laws.
"We are pleased with the appellate court's decision to support the public's right to open records, and we continue to report on this story," an ESPN spokesperson said on Tuesday.
ESPN and Lavigne sought the records as part of an investigation that examined interactions between local police and college athletes at 10 major colleges, including Notre Dame. The project attempted to determine how often crimes involving college athletes are prosecuted and what factors influence them. Outside the Lines requested police reports involving all football and men's basketball players on rosters from 2009 to 2014 from campus and city police departments covering 10 major programs: Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Michigan State, Missouri, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Texas A&M and Wisconsin. Some police departments withheld records citing state disclosure laws. (ESPN also sued Michigan State University for not releasing material and won that case.) And not all information was uniform among jurisdictions.
Overall, though, the Outside the Lines investigation, which published and aired in June, found that what occurred between high-profile college athletes when they faced criminal allegations and law enforcement was not as simple as the commonly held perception that police and prosecutors simply show preferential treatment to athletes, though that did occur. Rather, an examination of more than 2,000 police documents showed that athletes from the 10 schools mainly benefited from the confluence of factors that can be reality at major sports programs: the near immediate access to high-profile attorneys, the intimidation that is felt by witnesses who accuse athletes, and the higher bar that some criminal justice officials feel needs to be met in high-profile cases.