City takes tough questions over GRPD call recordings

Lawyers for MLive and the city of Grand Rapids argue about the possible release of police phone call recordings in court on Sept. 6, 2017.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Wednesday the Michigan Court of Appeals grilled Grand Rapids’ city attorney who was arguing the city should not be forced to turn over a set of recorded police phone calls under the Freedom of Information Act.

The calls were made after a November 2016 wrong-way crash involving then-Kent County assistant prosecutor Josh Kuiper.

Officer Adam Ikes called the Grand Rapids Police Department on a recorded line, and told Lt. Matthew Janiskee that Kuiper was “hammered.”

Janiskee told the officer to stop talking and call “3407,” a line labeled as unrecorded. However, the city later learned that line was actually recorded.

Target 8 and other media outlets requested recordings of those calls through FOIA, but those requests were denied by the city.

Grand Rapids has asked a federal court to determine if the recordings violate a federal wiretapping law. The city insists the recordings do not violate that law, but want a judge to confirm their opinion before making them available.

Wednesday, the Michigan Court of Appeals heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by MLive against the city, seeking the release of the recordings.

While MLive argues the city never claimed a valid exemption under FOIA, the city argues that if the federal judge finds the recordings violate federal wiretapping law, they would be exempt from release by law.

This argument led to an exchange between city attorney John Gretzinger and Judge Michael Talbot.

“We filed a declaratory judgment action to determine whether or not use or disclosure of these tapes would violate federal law,” Gretzinger said.

“But what you did not say is ‘We did violate federal law, we did wiretap, we did commit a crime.’ You never have said that to this day,” the judge said.

“We don’t believe we did, but…” Gretzinger answered.

“Thank you very much, that just answers the pregnant question,” Talbot responded.

Judge Peter O’Connell summarized MLive’s case from the bench.

“You made a FOIA request, they didn’t provide you with a legitimate exception, since there is no exception you win,” O’Connell stated.

At another point, Talbot questioned why Grand Rapids had to go to federal court at all, instead of letting MLive sue them.

“We don’t think that would be prudent judge,” Gretzinger said.

“Oh, I see. Interesting,” Talbot answered.

The lawsuit by MLive was first heard by a Kent County Circuit Court judge, who decided Grand Rapids should wait until the federal court judge ruled before deciding whether to make the recordings available.

Wednesday, MLive attorney Jill Wheaton asked the appeals court to force the city to hand over the recordings immediately if the judges side with MLive.

The appeals court indicated it planned to issue its ruling quickly, though there is no timetable for when that decision could come.