Contrary to the public interest: Two sets of laws govern records in Colorado

DENVER - Colorado has two tiers of records that are governed by separate laws, CORA and CCJRA.

The Colorado Open Records Act, commonly called "CORA," governs how most non-police agencies deal with records. With some exemptions, CORA requires a city, schools district, state agency or other government entity to release records within three to 10 working days.

In Aspen, the city could be on the hook for $300,000 after losing its fight to keep electronic ballots collected in the 2009 election secret -- despite showing many of those ballots during election night on city-owned television.

Marilyn Marks, who finished second in the city mayoral race, filed a CORA request to see the ballots, but was denied sparking a long court struggle.

"They claimed that a secret ballot means that the government gets to see the ballots but they don't belong to the people," Marks said. "Their theme throughout this whole argument was, 'Look ballots have to be locked up and only us government officials should be able to look.'"

But Aspen City Attorney Jim True said laws meant ballots should be kept away from public scrutiny. Two district courts agreed with that view but the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed lower court rulings, ordering ballot copies released to Marks. The state Supreme Court allowed the appeals decision to stand.

"When it came to releasing the ballots, we felt the law very clearly said that ballots are not subject to examination," True said, defending the city's actions.

He disputed that Aspen would pay $300,000 in court fees for the case, arguing the amount should be less.

The second pertinent records law is the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, or CCJRA. It governs how law enforcement agencies respond to requests. Except for official actions, like arrests, charges and bond amounts, the law allows the custodian of the records to determine whether releasing records is in the public interest.

Terrill Johnson's 2002 profiling case against the Denver Police Department is one of several where Denver police ultimately paid attorney’s fees for wrongly withholding records.

In 2005, the ACLU was granted $40,000 in attorney fees when police withheld Internal Affairs files from community activists as part of the 'Spy Files' investigations in which Denver police gathered information on peaceful demonstrators.

And last year, a judge ruled in a case similar to Johnson's situation where two men accused police of racial profiling during a traffic stop. The judge awarded attorneys for Ashford Wortham and Cornelius Campbell $24,000 because the city improperly withheld IA investigation files from the 2009 incident.