Salem continues to fight releasing arrest records at unknown cost to taxpayers

The lobby at Salem City Hall. The city has spent nearly four years fighting to keep private the arrest records of a man later convicted of sexually abusing a child. (Salem Reporter files)

Klain Pippert was arrested in early 2015 for sexually abusing a child. He pleaded guilty, served a prison sentence and has been free two years. But his case still dogs Salem.

City officials are mounting yet another effort to keep records of Pippert’s arrest confidential. The city last month petitioned the Oregon Supreme Court to overturn an Oregon Court of Appeals decision to turn loose the old arrest information.

The petition continues a nearly four-year effort to cloak details of Pippert’s arrest. City officials can’t say what it has cost Salem taxpayers for the city to guard information that is routinely disclosed and open for anyone who wants to go the local courthouse.

Salem City Manager Steve Powers told Salem Reporter in an email last week that the city is fighting the release of arrest information to shield victims.

“The city’s actions have been to protect the privacy rights of victims and their families,” he wrote in an email.

The actions defy the appeals court, which decided in September that the city could legally release the arrest information without endangering the young victim by redacting parts of the record.

Powers didn’t respond to written questions about why the city hasn’t released the redacted arrest information.

The legal fight over a routine public record stems from a reporter and editor at the Woodburn Independent who got curious after seeing Pippert’s name in a log of jail inmates. According to reporter Tyler Francke, Pippert’s family had been prominent in Woodburn-area athletics and the name sometimes splashed on the paper’s sports sections.

Jail rosters don’t tell much about the crime resulting in the arrest. They provide an inmate’s birth date, the criminal charges, when they were arrested and when they will appear before a judge.

Behind each name is an arrest record. Oregon Public Records Law requires disclosure in most circumstances of arrest records that show similar information. The law also said the public is entitled to know.

Legal scholars say such public information gives people insight into how police and governments do their jobs and how tax dollars are spent.

“When it comes to access of information, whether it is arrest records or not, it provides the public an important opportunity to scrutinize how government officials are doing,” said Kyu Ho Youm, a First Amendment scholar at the University of Oregon.

Francke, the reporter, told Salem Reporter that the paper wanted to know more about the arrest. The jail roster did not give a lot to go on, so he requested from the Salem officials the “full investigation/arrest report.”

“It was a serious nature and we felt the community had the right to know more about what was alleged to have happened,” he said.

Salem turned down Francke. Because the victim was a juvenile, the city argued, the records qualified as “reports of child abuse” which are confidential under Oregon law.

The next day, Francke revised his request, this time agreeing to have redacted information identifying the victim.

“They said it was to protect the victim. We said ‘OK, protect the victim. Give us information not related to the victim,’” Francke said.

Salem turned the reporter down again, responding it had no “arrest report,” as Francke requested, and that the arrest information was too entwined with other records.

The Marion County District Attorney’s office backed up Salem, rejecting an appeal by the Woodburn weekly seeking to order disclosure of the arrest. The newspaper group then sued in Marion County Circuit Court, seeking a judge’s order that the arrest information be disclosed.

The city continued to balk.

“The reports… may not be disclosed in either redacted or unredacted form,” the city said in court filings.

The city has steadfastly insisted that the records are confidential “reports of child abuse,” and it cannot extract the arrest information that is outlined in Oregon’s records law.

When the circuit judge upheld the city’s position, the Woodburn journalists went to to the Oregon Court of Appeals. This time they won the right to see the arrest information.

Reports of child abuse trigger investigations required by law, the Appeals Court said. Such a report stems from laws Oregon crafted in the 1970s to protect children by requiring, for example, doctors to report the state when they see suspicious injuries.

But arrest records, the court said, are governed by separate laws that should give the Woodburn Independent the information it sought.

“In the city’s view, all records collected or generated during an investigation related to child abuse in any way are ‘compiled under the (child abuse laws),’” the court wrote in a 16-page opinion. But those laws “do not govern or even address the arrest of a perpetrator.”

The appeals court reversed the circuit court’s decision, clearing the way for the Woodburn paper to finally get the report. Salem Reporter first reported on the legal case in September.

“I think if there’s a take-away in my mind from (the court’s) opinion, it’s that the child abuse statutes are meant for the protection and benefits of children and families,” said Jack Orchard, the Portland attorney for Pamplin. “They aren’t designed in any way, shape or form to protect the perpetrator.”

Orchard said police agencies often release information of an adult whose victim is juvenile. That information would be confidential under Salem’s reasoning, he said.

“Within a few months after the Woodburn reporter was refused any information about the Pippert arrest and the city said in court that no such information could ever be released, I saw on two Portland television stations a Salem Police spokesman talking openly about the arrest of a Mr. Oien,” Orchard said in an email. “Mr. Oien was charged with an adult-to-juvenile sex abuse crime. His photo was displayed to the media. I don’t understand the inconsistency between the two cases.”

When asked directly by Salem Reporter about what implications he saw for policing if compelled to release Pippert’s arrest information, City Attorney Dan Atchison didn’t answer directly. Instead, he steered a reporter to the city’s petition to the Supreme Court.

There, Assistant City Attorney Thomas Cupani maintains the city’s records are confidential “reports of child abuse” and the city cannot release documents even with redactions.

The city also argues that because Francke and the Woodburn Independent reported on Pippert’s arrest as information emerged in the courts, that there was no need for the city to release the information about the arrest.

Records of Pippert’s prosecution are open to this day in Marion County Circuit Court, including records that identify the victim.

Orchard said the city is missing the point of Pamplin’s argument: that the government has the legal burden to provide arrest information when asked, regardless of whether the information has come out in the courts.

“I think one of the problems I run into … is they say ‘You already knew all of this,’” he said. “You say ‘Wait a minute. I want to see the original source record that was created at the outset of this. I want to see if there’s been consistency.’”

The state Supreme Court hasn’t decided whether it will take the case, but there could be ramifications across the state and locally.

Cities across Oregon have police responding to cases of child abuse and this case will guide how they interpret records laws, said Patty Mulvihill, general counsel for the League of Oregon Cities. The league filed an amicus brief in November to join the case where it agreed with Salem’s position.

Mulvihill said a decision by the Supreme Court would “affect all state, county and local bodies that provide law enforcement services, while also impacting members of the public, including the news media, crime victims and criminal defendants.”

Mulvihill added that the interpretations of the public records law at issue have never been heard before by the Supreme Court.

It’s unclear what Salem is willing to spend to take the fight to the Supreme Court. If it loses, the city could be faced with using public money to pay Pamplin’s legal fees dating back to the first court case. Orchard said the Appeals Court case alone cost more than $35,000.

That doesn’t include what it has cost the city so far. Atchison, the city attorney, said in an email that the city doesn’t calculate costs for a particular legal matter and doesn’t track hours spent by city lawyers on the matter.

“While the legal department devoted time and resources to defending Pamplin’s lawsuit, it did not result in any cost to the city beyond filing fees and making copies,” he wrote.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.