An appeals court Tuesday backed prosecutors in a public-records fight with Jacksonville news organizations about access to recordings of jailhouse phone calls in the high-profile murder case of Michael Dunn.
The 1st District Court of Appeal upheld the process used by the Duval County State Attorney’s Office in reviewing Dunn’s phone calls before releasing recordings to news organizations — but also asked the Florida Supreme Court to take up the issue. The Florida Times-Union and television stations WTLV, WJXX and WJXT argued, at least in part, that the review process improperly delayed access to the recordings.
The Dunn case, which drew national media attention, stemmed from the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis at a Jacksonville gas station after a dispute about loud music coming from a vehicle in which Davis was a passenger. During an initial trial, a jury found Dunn guilty of attempted murder charges for shooting at other occupants of the vehicle but deadlocked on a murder charge. A jury in a second trial last year found the Brevard County man guilty of first-degree murder.
Tuesday’s public-records ruling dealt with attempts by media organizations to get what the appeals court described as hundreds of recordings of phone conversations from the time when Dunn was in jail awaiting the first trial. The State Attorney’s Office used a process that involved an administrative assistant and an attorney reviewing the recordings to redact material exempt from public-records law and also estimated the media organizations would need to pay more than $6,000 in costs, including a $3,000 deposit.
The ruling focused on questions about whether the review process unnecessarily duplicated a review of the recordings that prosecutors conducted as they prepared for the trial. While siding with the State Attorney’s Office, a three-judge panel of the appeals court cited “the unusual facts of this case and the novel legal issue presented” in calling for a Supreme Court to take up the fight.
“No one disputes that the phone recordings are public records or that they must be made available in as immediate a manner as is practicable,” said the ruling by judges Brad Thomas, Stephanie Ray and Scott Makar. “And, as a general matter, the media does not disagree that advance payment of some amount may be required. Instead, the crux of the legal issue is to what extent, if any, was the SAO (State Attorney’s Office) as a records custodian legally required to coordinate its review of phone recordings for discovery purposes and for use at trial, with its public records request review under (the state’s public records law). We find no clear answer.”
Nevertheless, the court found no “legal duty exists” for prosecutors to combine the two review processes.
“(The) ultimate question here is whether the application of the SAO’s public records policy is unreasonable because it failed to take steps to avoid repetition and duplication with its review of the recordings for use at trial,” the ruling said. “Coordinating trial review efforts with pending public records requests (and perhaps even anticipated requests in the highest profile cases) makes sense, but in the absence of clear legislative intent requiring it, we are unable to conclude that the SAO is legally required to do so.”
The ruling also noted “antipathy” between the media organizations and the state attorney’s office.
“(The) media’s primary point is that the SAO’s public records review policy is combative, inefficient, unduly expensive, and prolonged, which made it virtually impossible to get access to Mr. Dunn’s phone recordings prior to trial,” the ruling said. “They further contend that the SAO overstated its estimated special service charges and increased delays by failing to disclose summaries of the phone calls and failing to take any steps to coordinate or combine its ongoing review of Mr. Dunn’s phone recordings.”