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Court News Ohio

Amusement Park Police Must Provide Records Requested by TV Stations

Image of Cedar Point amusement park entrance.

Cedar Point Police Department must provide reports of crimes requested by three Ohio television stations.

Image of Cedar Point amusement park entrance.

Cedar Point Police Department must provide reports of crimes requested by three Ohio television stations.

The Cedar Point Police Department must turn over records requested by three Ohio television stations, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

The Supreme Court unanimously concluded the amusement park’s police department is the “functional equivalent” of a public office, noting that park officers report to the Sandusky city manager by city ordinance and carry out the core functions of government. Under the Ohio Public Records Act, the department must turn over the records regarding an injury that occurred near the Top Thrill Dragster roller coaster in 2021 and reports of sexual misconduct over a period of five years.

In a per curiam opinion , the Court majority also directed Cedar Fair, the parent company of Cedar Point, to pay the media outlets’ court costs , but denied requests that the company pay for damages and attorney fees.

Justices Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, Jennifer Brunner, and Joseph T. Deters joined the opinion.

In a separate opinion, Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that Cedar Fair should pay damages and attorney fees to the news stations. Justice Melody Stewart joined the chief justice’s opinion.

Park Created Police Department
A Sandusky city ordinance permits the city manager to appoint private police officers when requested by a person or business in the city. The private employer must pay the officers, who have the same powers and are subject to the same regulations as city police officers. The private police officers must be qualified as Ohio peace officers by the Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission.

In 2014, Cedar Fair contracted with Sandusky to appoint private police for Cedar Point. The agreement required the amusement park to pay the officers’ salary, equipment, and training. Soon after, the training commission listed “Sandusky Police/Cedar Point Division” as a police agency. Cedar Point referred to the officers on social media as “bonded officers, with full law enforcement authority.” The park referred to the officers as the Cedar Point Police Department (CPPD).

News Stations Seek Information
In August 2021, WKYC, a Cleveland TV station, requested from the Cedar Point police all incident and investigative reports, and associated emergency medical services reports, regarding a female guest’s injury near the Top Thrill Dragster on Aug. 15, 2021. WKYC also requested other records and documents related to the incident.

In its response to the station, the amusement park questioned whether it was required to reply and added that it had no documents that responded to the public records request.

In March 2022, WTOL, a Toledo TV station, emailed a public records request to Ronald Gilson, who is the director of security at Cedar Point and chief of the park’s police department. The station wanted copies of all reports of sexual misconduct filed with the department between April 2017 and March 2022. Gilson replied that if Cedar Point was required to respond, and there are documents, he would provide them. But if the park’s attorney did not believe the park was required to respond, the attorney would explain why Cedar Point was not responding, he wrote. Cedar Point did not respond or provide any documents to WTOL.

In June 2022, WBNS, a Columbus TV station, made a similar request for records regarding sexual misconduct for the same five-year period between 2017 and 2022. The department did not respond or provide any records to the station.

In July 2022, the three stations sought a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court, asking the Court to order Cedar Point to produce the requested records, and the stations asked that the company pay statutory damages for violating the Public Records Act along with court costs and attorney fees. The company responded that the Cedar Point Police Department is not an entity required to respond to public records requests.

The department added that it did not have any documents the stations requested, and if it did, those documents were exempt from disclosure under R.C. 149.43 as confidential law enforcement investigatory records and privileged private security documents.

Supreme Court Examined Claim That Agency Has Documents
Today’s opinion noted the news outlets submitted evidence that Cedar Point police investigated criminal claims and made arrests at the time of the incidents in their records requests. They included police incident reports that park officers submitted to the Sandusky Police Department, which included a report of a sexual assault. The Sandusky assistant city manager stated in an email that Cedar Point officers handled most misdemeanor crimes, and arrests by Cedar Point officers were processed by the Sandusky Municipal Court.

At the time two of the requests were pending, Sandusky and Cedar Point issued a joint press release stating that the Cedar Point Police Department’s “policing authorities” would be transferred to the Sandusky Police Department, and the park police would focus “solely on security operations.”

While the city manager appointed officers for Cedar Point, the opinion noted it is not clear how the Cedar Point Police Department was created. Nothing in the city ordinances or agreement with the park authorizes a police department. Cedar Fair stated it created the department as a for-profit limited liability partnership, but the Court indicated the company did not submit evidence by the required deadline to support the claim.

Court Analyzed Requirement Under Law to Produce Records
The lack of clarity regarding the existence of a park police department factored into the Court’s determination of whether the records of criminal activity were public records. The news outlets argued that under R.C. 149.011(A) the department constituted a “public office” because it was an “entity established by the law of this state for the exercise of any function of government.”

While Sandusky granted the Cedar Point police with all the authority of city police officers, there is no indication that the department was established by any state law, so it is not a public office required to comply with the public records law.

However, the TV stations maintained that under the Supreme Court’s 2006 State ex rel. Oriana House, Inc. v. Montgomery decision, private entities that act as the functional equivalent of a public office are subject to the Public Records Act. Some of the key factors in determining whether a private entity is a functional equivalent include whether the entity performs a government function, and the extent of government involvement and regulation.

The Court has previously ruled that enforcement of criminal laws is a “core government function,” and has found the Cedar Point Police Department was carrying out enforcement actions. The Court noted that Sandusky regulates and is involved in the park police operations, and that the city and park police work closely when investing crimes and performing other law enforcement duties.

“At the time of the public-records requests, the CPPD was serving as the police department for the employees and guests of Cedar Point. It does much more than just provide security for Cedar Point,” the opinion stated.

Because the police department acted as the functional equivalent of a public institution, it must respond to valid public records requests, the Court stated. The Court also rejected Cedar Point’s claim that the records it had were confidential and did not need to be provided. The opinion stated the park has not provided any explanation as to how the exemptions in state law apply to the documents in the police department’s possession.

The Court also ruled that the department does not have to provide any reports created by emergency medical services personnel because there was no evidence that the park police provided EMS services.

Court Denied Financial Sanctions
The Court denied the award of statutory damages, which could have reached a maximum of $1,000 for each time the department failed to comply with a records request, and did not direct Cedar Point to pay the news outlets’ attorney fees. The Court noted that under R.C. 149.43, a court can deny damages and attorney fees when a “well-informed person responsible for the requested public records would have reasonably believed” that the records did not have to be disclosed. The Court determined that Cedar Point could have reasonably believed it did not have to provide the records.

In her separate opinion, Chief Justice Kennedy noted that the department had identified itself in court filings as a law enforcement agency, it handled arrests in cases prosecuted in Sandusky Municipal Court, it submitted police incident reports to the city, and it even admitted performing policing duties in a press release while the record requests were pending. Even more, the department’s officers were appointed by the city manager and worked closely with Sandusky police, she wrote. She concluded that, because a well-informed person responsible for the requested records would have reasonably believed they had a duty to comply with the Public Records Act, the television stations are entitled to statutory damages and attorney fees.

2022-0194. State ex rel. WTOL Television LLC v. Cedar Fair LP, Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-4593.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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