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In Case of First Impression, Louisiana Supreme Court Holds Public Records Restriction Inapplicable to Defense Attorney’s Request for Client’s Files and Awards Fees

by Mark Wilson

The Louisiana Supreme Court held that an attorney representing an incarcerated felon is not subject to La. R.S. § 44:31.1 when making a public records request to get information in connection with a potential post-conviction relief application.

La. R.S. §  44:31.1 provides that “an individual in custody after sentence following a felony conviction who has exhausted his appellate remedies” is not a “person” within the meaning of the state’s public records laws “when the request for public records is not limited to grounds upon which the individual could file for post-conviction relief….” Under the statute, the custodian of records “may make an inquiry of any individual who applies for a public record to determine if such individual is in custody after sentence following a felony conviction who has exhausted his appellate remedies….” The custodian may also inquire whether the request is limited to grounds upon which the individual could file for post-conviction relief.

Louisiana prisoner Stephan Bergeron hired attorney James Boren to investigate whether he had a valid basis for seeking post-conviction relief on 2013 rape convictions. Boren made a public records request with the St. Landry District Attorney’s Office to review and copy records related to Bergeron’s convictions.

Pursuant to La. R.S. § 44:31.1, Assistant District Attorney Donald Richard asked Boren to disclose whether he represented Bergeron in a post-conviction proceeding. He also requested that Boren “set forth the grounds for post-conviction relief” and provide his “personal representation that none of those grounds were raised on appeal.” Boren explained that he was retained by Bergeron to investigate whether he had any valid post-conviction grounds. He said he needed access to the prosecution’s files, so he could conduct that investigation.

Richard denied Boren’s request. Boren then filed a mandamus petition, but the trial court denied relief. The appellate court affirmed, concluding that La. R.S. § 44:31.1 applied because Boren essentially “stood in the shoes of his client, Stephan Bergeron, an incarcerated felon who had exhausted his appellate remedies.” The court ruled that Boren was required to satisfy the prosecutor’s La. R.S. § 44:31.1 inquiries.

The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed. “The plain language of La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 44:31.1 only restricts the right of an individual in custody after sentence following a felony conviction to examine public documents,” the Supreme Court observed. It then instructed that the statute “does not restrict the right of a person on the basis of that person’s status as an attorney representing a client,” adding the statute “clearly and unambiguously applies only to an individual in custody after sentence following a felony conviction.” 

The Court remanded “with instructions to issue a writ of mandamus to the St. Landry Parish District Attorney, ordering compliance with La. R.S. 44:31 and La. R.S. 44:32, without regard to the provisions of La. R.S. 44:31.1, as to the public records request of plaintiff James E. Boren” and ordered that Boren be awarded his attorney fees, costs, and damages. See: Boren v. Taylor, 223 So.3d 1130 (La. 2017).  

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