Public records lawsuit filed against Columbus Sheriff

By DEUCE NIVEN

tribdeuce@tabor-loris.com

     A lawsuit seeking records from the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office has been filed on behalf of a coalition of media partners, including Tabor-Loris Tribune.

     Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are The News Reporter of Whiteville and Wilmington television stations WECT and WWAY. Attorney C. Amanda Martin of Raleigh based Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, PLLC is representing the news outlets.

     That lawsuit is in response to a change in policy from Sheriff Jody Greene that began in early September involving its long-held practice of providing daily “incident report” summaries to media outlets that provided some basic information on reports taken by deputies across the county.

     Relief sought in the lawsuit includes an order declaring that the records sought by the news outlets “are public” as defined by state law, an order to provide those records “now and going forward,” and the awarding of “reasonable attorneys’ fees.”

     A “preliminary order” that would require the sheriff to bring the requested records to court for review by the judge is also sought.

     Filed in Columbus County Superior Court on Friday, the lawsuit was provided by e-mail to Sheriff Greene Friday afternoon. Efforts to contact the sheriff for comment for this story were not successful.

     Columbus County Clerk of Court Jess Hill said Friday that he would formally serve the lawsuit on the sheriff, as required by law, on Monday.

     State law requires that legal action against a sitting sheriff be served by the elected coroner, or in county’s like Columbus where that office has been abolished, by the elected Clerk of Court or their designee.

     Sheriff Greene, Friday afternoon, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

     “Let the attorney’s handle it,” Greene said.

     Greene said county attorney Amanda Prince would not represent him, and that he was not in his office and could not recall the name of the attorney who will handle the case.

     Prince, earlier Friday, said she was not sure if she would represent the sheriff or not because of a potential conflict of interest. She said she could not reveal the nature of that conflict of interest.

Specifics

     For many years, prior to Sept. 2 of this year, the sheriff’s office through its public information office has provided summaries of arrests and incident reports from the sheriff’s computer records system. Media outlets, including this one, have used that information to report on crimes reported to the sheriff’s office and arrests made by the agency.

     There has been no change in the policy regarding arrests, but on Sept. 3 the office stopped providing incident reports, with the public information officer saying, in an e-mail on Sept. 8, that information on a change in policy would be forthcoming.

     Sheriff Greene, the lawsuit said, explained his position to Thomas Sherrill of The News Reporter on Sept. 11, “arguing that publication of criminal information in the newspaper deters the reporting of legitimate criminal complaints.”

     In a follow-up conversation with Justin Smith of The News Reporter, Chief Deputy Aaron Herring said “that it was the position of the Sheriff’s Office that they were not obligated to release any information about any case still under investigation,” the lawsuit said. “Deputy Herring said the Office would not release anything about cases until an arrest is made or the case has been closed.”

Deputy Herring expressed the same views in a separate conversation with Tabor-Loris Tribune.

     Attorney Martin contacted County Attorney Prince on Sept. 23 seeking that information. Two days later the sheriff’s office made a Facebook post stating that its new policy would prohibit the release of incidents reports “until the case is close.”

     Attorney Martin, in the lawsuit, said that attorney Prince did not respond to her requests for information in writing, and that in a follow-up telephone call Prince “said she believed she had a conflict of interest in representing the Sheriff.”

     Chief Deputy Herring, in an Oct. 2 telephone conversation with attorney Martin, restated his position on closed cases, and defined those as “those cases in which the Sheriff’s Office has made an arrest, has exhausted all leads or has determined there was no crime.  ‘Open cases’ are those cases still under investigation by the Sheriff’s Office.

     News outlets and attorney Martin, on Oct. 5, were provided the new records procedure alluded to on Sept. 8. It was dated Sept. 10 but had not been released before Oct. 5. It said “information pertaining to open criminal investigations will not be released prior to the conclusion of the investigation and/or the arrest of all suspects involved.”

     That policy, the lawsuit argues, “is a violation of the Public Records Law requirement to provide access to public records and information as promptly as possible.” The law, the lawsuit argues, requires the agency to provide “time, date, location, and nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law reported to a public law enforcement agency.”