The Indiana Court of Appeals in ESPN Inc. and Paula Lavigne v. University of Notre Dame et al. held the campus police department at Notre Dame, a private university, was subject to the Indiana Access to Public Records Act (“APRA”). ESPN and Ms. Lavigne filed a complaint against the University’s Police Department alleging it was a qualified public agency under APRA after the university police department refused to provide ESPN access to certain records. The lawsuit claimed the records were public. Notre Dame disagreed and opposed the release of its police department records. The trial court decided the university police department was not subject to the APRA and the records did not have to be released. This decision was based on a prior administrative ruling that a private university’s police force was not a “public institution accountable to any other political subdivision or body politic and therefore did not qualify as a public agency subject to APRA.”
ESPN appealed the decision based on the position the University Police Department was a law enforcement agency as defined by APRA and the records had to be released. The Court of Appeals agreed and found the university’s police department was a public agency because it: “(1) is a law enforcement agency (defined by I.C.§ 5-14-3-2(n)); (2) exercises the executive powers of the state; and (3) exercises a delegated ‘traditional’ governmental power.” Overall, the court stated, “We interpret the APRA phrase ‘any agency or a department of any level of government,’ and therefore the definition of ‘law enforcement agency,’ to include private education institutions that choose to appoint police officers pursuant to I.C.§ 21-17-5 et. seq.”
This case could be important to hospitals as many private hospital systems employ police officers under the Hospital Police Departments Act. (I.C.§ 18-8-4.) Given the ruling detailed above, it is possible a private hospital police department could be ordered to respond to a APRA request. In fact, the Hospital Police Department Act mirrors many definitions of the University Police Department Act laid out in support of the court’s ruling. For example, just as in the University Police Department Act, hospital police offers have “general police powers” and “the same common law and statutory powers, privileges and immunities as sheriffs and constables.” Thus, the same argument that the hospital police department is considered: (1) a law enforcement agency; (2) exercising executive powers; and (3) exercising a delegated traditional government role could lead a court to the same conclusion and force a hospital system to release otherwise unprotected information pursuant to an Indiana APRA request.