The Kent County Sheriff’s Department must release personnel files and reports from an internal affairs investigation into the alleged misconduct of one of its sergeants, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled.
Sheriff must release files on arrested policeman
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (February 1, 2004) — The Kent County Sheriff’s Department must release personnel files and reports from an internal affairs investigation into the alleged misconduct of one of its sergeants, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
Sgt. Robert Vanderlaan, who was elected city commissioner in Kentwood from 1999 to 2003, and Michigan State Trooper Kelly Hillary were among 16 men arrested on May 2, 2002, for soliciting sexual acts from two female Grand Rapids Police Department officers participating in a prostitution sting. While the other 14 men received citations and spent the night in jail, Vanderlaan and Hillary were released.
Responding to an anonymous tip from within the police department, The Grand Rapids Press published a story about the arrests in May. The following day, Vanderlaan and Hillary were charged with solicitation.
The Press and a local television station further pursued the story, and submitted Freedom of Information requests to the Sheriff’s Department and the State Police Department for documents from the men’s personnel files. They also sought the results of an internal affairs investigation conducted on May 3. They sued for the information when the requests were denied.
In August 2002, Circuit Court Judge Dennis Kolenda ordered the information on both men released.
Vanderlaan and the Sheriff’s department appealed, claiming there was no public interest in the disclosure. The Sheriff told the court that public responses to the news coverage showed that the public considered it “disgraceful and unwarranted.”
The state appellate court overturned the ruling in October 2002.
“This is a sergeant from an influential family who is also a city commissioner,” said Jonathan Rowe, attorney for the Press. “He is a public official at two levels. There’s a great deal of public interest in this case.”
The Supreme Court of Michigan agreed with Rowe’s assessment and sent the case back to the Court of Appeals to further weigh the public’s interest.
On Jan. 27, the appellate court ordered the documents released under the state’s FOI law. Personal information, such as Vanderlaan’s home phone number, address and social security number, were exempted. The court, however, did allow the disclosure of references that Vanderlaan admitted he needed psychological treatment.
“The released documents shed light on the official acts and workings of the government,” the court concluded. “The (Circuit) Court correctly ruled that the documents contained some information from which the public could make a determination with respect to whether the deputy was given preferential treatment.”
Vanderlaan did not run for reelection as city commissioner of Kentwood in November, and is no longer serving in the Kent County Sheriff’s Department.
“This is a significant victory,” said Press editor Mike Lloyd. “What made us pursue this is that one of the men was an elected public official.” They expressed “an illegitimate righteousness — as if we were trying to strip the police of protection,” he added.
“They were the ones who bent the rules.”
(Herald Company, Inc., and Tribune Television Holdings, Inc. v. Kent County Sheriff’s Department and Michigan State Police; Media Counsel: Jonathan Rowe, Soble and Rowe, Grand Rapids)