Judge Rules City of Portland Wrongfully Denied Public Records to Former Cop

The “matrix effect” argument to exempt nonexempt records does not pass judicial muster.

PUBLIC FACING: A Portland police officer responds to an incident. (Brian Burk)

The judge in a long-running lawsuit filed by former Portland Police Bureau Sgt. Liani Reyna against the city of Portland ruled in favor of Reyna on May 26 in a dispute over public records.

Reyna filed suit in October 2020 against the city of Portland, seeking certain records related to internal affairs investigations of nine specified PPB officers. Attorneys for Reyna and the city agreed that parts of those records were subject to disclosure and parts were exempt from disclosure.

Reyna, who was the first female and openly gay member of PPB’s Special Emergency Reaction Team, retired in 2019. She had filed a complaint against her ex-wife, also a PPB officer, and argued the bureau did not fairly investigate complaints she filed while overzealously investigating complaints against her. She wanted to examine the public portions of internal affairs complaints made against former colleagues for comparison.

Her effort launched a complex legal battle.

Reyna had filed a public records request for information about IA investigations involving the nine officers with the city before filing her lawsuit. The city rejected that request and the Multnomah County district attorney upheld the denial on June 18, 2020.

The DA’s office agreed with Reyna that some of the records she sought were indeed subject to disclosure. However, it found that if those records were released, they could be combined with other, previously disclosed, anonymized internal affairs records to piece together information about officers that is exempt from disclosure under Oregon’s public records law.

The DA’s office describes combining two sets public records to suss out details exempt from disclosure as the “matrix effect.”

Reyna’s attorney, Alan Kessler, argued in Multnomah County Circuit Court that the matrix effect was a concept found nowhere in the public records law.

Kessler has regularly litigated public records disputes with the city, particularly those relating to police records and the Police Bureau’s reluctance to identify officers who may have engaged in misconduct.

Kessler says the matrix effect is a “nonsense public records exemption” invented by the District Attorney’s Office, which has no authority to make laws.

In a May 26 ruling, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Jenna Plank agreed with Kessler’s argument.

“The ‘matrix effect’ only exists because [the city of Portland] has voluntarily chosen to include certain data fields on its website,” Plank wrote in her opinion and order. “Endorsing a matrix effect interpretation whereby a public body can unilaterally render nonexempt information exempt is ripe for abuse and undermines public records laws favoring exposure.”

Plank added that the city must provide the information Reyna requested. “There is no genuine material issue of fact as to whether [the city] has lawfully complied with [Reyna’s] public records request,” Plank wrote. “Defendant [the city] has not.”

This post will be updated with a response from the city.

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