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Utah Supreme Court won’t decide if BYU police fully comply with public records laws

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Supreme Court effectively sidestepped a legal question about whether the privately-owned Brigham Young University police force must comply with Utah's public records laws.

In a ruling handed down late Wednesday, the state's top court said BYU PD must hand over records to The Salt Lake Tribune from May 2019 on -- when the legislature changed the law to make the university comply with public records laws. But Justice Paige Petersen said the Court was not going to decide about records The Tribune wanted before that.

"So the administration and interests of justice are not served by analyzing whether the University Police was a 'governmental entity' under the now-obsolete 2016 version of GRAMA. Now that the University Police’s status as a 'governmental entity' under GRAMA is beyond dispute, the parties might resolve the contested request without further litigation," Justice Petersen wrote.

Since 2016, the newspaper has been seeking access to communications and records from the university police force related to allegations that people who reported being the victims of sex crimes then found themselves under investigation for potentially violating BYU's Honor Code.  The Tribune's reporting on the issue prompted changes at BYU and won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize in 2017.

The university -- which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- insists that while its officers are certified by Utah's Peace Officer Standards and Training Council -- it is a private police force. The Tribune counters that it is an agency with full arresting authority, therefore subject to public records laws.

In arguments earlier this year, the Utah Supreme Court was urged by both BYU and The Tribune to settle the issue. FOX 13 and other news media organizations filed a "friend of the court" brief siding with The Tribune. (FOX 13 and The Tribune also enjoy a news sharing arrangement.) But the Utah Supreme Court's ruling sends it back to a lower court.

"BYU recognizes the Utah Supreme Court’s decision not to decide the case in favor of either party, and BYU looks forward to presenting its arguments to the lower courts," university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said in an email to FOX 13 on Thursday.

Sheila McCann, the Tribune's managing editor, said the legal case was not over yet.

"Of course, we would have preferred to have a definitive ruling that resolved the case once and for all. I’m sure BYU feels the same way," she said. "But the landscape has really changed since we started this case including the law that has made it clear that BYU is subject to GRAMA now. So we understand why the justices sent this back to a lower court."

BYU PD's troubles are not over yet. The Utah Department of Public Safety confirmed to FOX 13 it is continuing to pursue its plans to decertify the university's police force over its non-compliance with public records laws. That proceeding has been postponed, however, due to BYU's request for an appeals hearing.

Read the Utah Supreme Court ruling here:

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