SALEM, N.H. — The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the town of Salem for what they call exorbitant police record fees that violate state statutes.
In March 2017, ACLU of New Hampshire's Legal Director Gilles Bissonnette filed a Right-to-Know request with the Salem Police Department requesting copies of any department documents or correspondence involving Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations or U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The request was part of a larger look at New Hampshire police departments' interactions with immigration officials.
The department uncovered eight documents, for which they charged the ACLU $15 each, for a total cost of $140. The nonprofit legal entity declined to pay the bill and filed a lawsuit in Rockingham County Superior court on Feb. 9.
"This case isn't about the ACLU paying $15 per report for eight reports. It's about challenging a fee structure that violates RSA 91A, and affects any citizen who wants a police report," Bissonnette said.
The town of Salem declined to comment on the court case.
The amount that municipalities charge for police records varies widely in Southern New Hampshire.
Any person is able to view town documents for free, according to state law. Some police departments, like in Manchester and Laconia, charge a small fee for copies of each page of a report. Others charge a flat amount for reports.
The Windham Police Department charges $6 per report and the Nashua Police Department charges $5. Plaistow charges the same rate as Salem, while Concord generally charges $18 per document.
The ACLU's view is that any municipality with similar fee schedules are also running afoul of the law and a ruling in favor of the ACLU would impact other communities, Bissonnette said.
He added that most New Hampshire cities and towns he has interacted with charge between 10 and 50 cents per page, which is in line with state law.
The New Hampshire Constitution authorizes public agencies to charge for "the actual cost of providing the copy."
When asked by Bissonnette why the fee was not per page, former Deputy Police Chief Jim Chase stated "it will take extensive research by our staff to research our files," according to court documents.
"Labor costs are not something that can be factored in... the charges have to be related to producing it, not the labor costs in retrieving in and reproducing it," Bissonnette said. "We understand and recognize that there is a range (in price). What's not appropriate is charging a flat fee."
A hearing has been set for March 29 at Rockingham County Superior Court.