In 2007, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in Schneider v. City of Jackson that the law enforcement privilege has never been adopted as a common law privilege in this state. Hence, the law enforcement privilege is not an exception to the Public Records Act, and many police records are open to public inspection.
While police records generally are open to public inspection, some protections have been enacted to safeguard ongoing investigations. Police records open to the public include:
- Accident reports. All vehicle accident reports, including liability insurance information, are open to the general public, with confidential information,including driver license numbers, redacted.
- 911 emergency dispatch recordings. Op. Tenn. Atty. Gen. 93-65 (Nov. 29, 1993).
- Arrest records. Some juvenile arrest recordsremain confidential. (See T.C.A. § 37-1-154.)
Police Investigative Records
The primary factor in determining the openness of a police investigative file is whether or not it is part of an active investigation. Records contained in an active investigation generally are closed, under Rule 16 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure. This is an obvious measure established to protect the law enforcement officers involved and to ensure that criminal participants remain unaware of police surveillance.
Once an investigation is closed, however, the justifications for the exception disappear. For an in-depth discussion on the confidentiality of closed investigative files see Schneider v. City of Jackson, 226 S.W. 3d 332 (Tenn. 2007).
In part, Schneider dealt with police officer field interview cards requested by a citizen. The case held, among other things, that these field interview cards are not protected from disclosure by the act. The case, in part, was remanded to the lower court to allow for redaction of information directly related to ongoing police investigations. This court opined that a common law privilege has never been formally adopted by Tennessee law and is not available for the protection of law enforcement records.
Information in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's Controlled Substance Database is confidential and remains so even when accessed by law enforcement officers for investigatory purposes; however, where the Tennessee Prescription Safety Act of 2012 concerns law enforcement officials, judicial district drug task force agents and county medical examiners, such documents that may be requested from TBI shall remain confidential. This act is set to expire on July 2, 2016. T.C.A. § 53-10-306.
Prison, Probation, and Parole Records
Where the release of prison, probation, or parole records would result in jeopardizing the safety of inmates or correctional officers, the commissioner of correction may restrict access to these records. T.C.A. § 4-6-140(c). Other Department of Correction records are likewise protected. These include certain juvenile records and all investigative records of its internal affairs department. T.C.A. §§ 37-1-154 and 10-7-504(a)(8). The Department of Correction is permitted to promulgate rules regarding the protection and distribution of its records. T.C.A. § 4-6-140(c). These rules, however, are public record. Taylor v. Campbell, LEXIS 85 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001).
Handgun permit records
Records related to handgun carry permit applications in possession of local law enforcement are confidential and not open to public inspection. This ncludes applications, renewals, materials required to be submitted, information provided to government entities for investigations, and records related to required criminal history checks. A local government that receives this information shall only disclose it as evidence in a criminal or child support prosecution.