D.A.’s Office warns of sizable fee to certify Morris record

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office last week said it expects to charge more than $100 for certification of a dispatch record relating to the Nizah Morris incident, despite a maximum certification fee of $5 per record set by the state Office of Open Records. 

On Sept. 6, Commonwealth Court ordered the D.A.’s Office to certify a one-page Morris dispatch record in response to an open-records request submitted by PGN in 2015.

On Sept. 21, the D.A.’s Office conveyed to an attorney for PGN that the certification fee would be in excess of $100. As of presstime, the office hadn’t tallied an exact amount.

The following day, PGN’s attorney replied that the paper declines to pay more than $5 for certification — which is the maximum fee set by OOR, as posted on its website. 

PGN’s position is that paying a fee in excess of $5 would impede efforts for publicly accessible and affordable Morris records.

Morris was a trans woman of color found with a fatal head wound in 2002, shortly after accepting a “courtesy ride” from Officer Elizabeth Skala. In the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 22, 2002, Skala was dispatched to handle Morris outside an LGBT bar in the Gayborhood. Prior to the dispatch, a 911 call was placed on Morris’ behalf, stating she was intoxicated and had mobility issues.

Inexplicably, Skala initiated an unrelated traffic stop while assigned to handle Morris. In May 2015, PGN requested a certified copy of all dispatch records pertaining to Skala’s traffic stop at the D.A.’s Office.

Prior to submitting its open-records request, PGN received a partial dispatch record for Skala’s traffic stop from the Police Advisory Commission and shared it with the D.A.’s Office in 2013. 

In an 11-page ruling, Commonwealth Court said the D.A.’s Office proved in an affidavit that its only dispatch record for Skala’s traffic stop is the partial record from PGN in 2013.

The court ordered the D.A.’s Office to certify the partial dispatch record. PGN contends certification will help ensure the D.A.’s Office conducts a proper search for a complete dispatch record for Skala’s traffic stop in its criminal files. 

Justin F. Robinette, an attorney for PGN, said agencies should charge a reasonable fee for certification of a public record.

“The Office of Open Records established a fee structure that recommends a $5 maximum fee for certification of a public record,” Robinette noted. “PGN will gladly pay the maximum certification fee. But paying an excessive fee would be antithetical to the goal of transparency in the Morris case.”

Previous articleTrans woman continues to seek accurate birth certificate
Next articleFive to be awarded at OutFest
Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.