COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — The Columbus County Sheriff’s Office is facing a lawsuit over its new policy to withhold criminal incident reports from the media, a violation of the state’s public records law.
Wake County attorney Amanda Martin, with Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, PLLC, represents WWAY, The News Reporter, WECT and Tabor-Loris Tribune.
The complaint asks for an immediate hearing and an order declaring that the requested records and information are public records as defined by the Public Records Law. It also asks for an order requiring the sheriff to revise his policies and procedures to fully comply with the Public Records Law’s demand that access be given as promptly as possible.
Up until September 3, the sheriff’s office provided plaintiffs with information related to reported allegations of criminal activity, known as ‘Incident Media Log Details,’ along with Arrest Reports.
After several days of not receiving the incident reports, on September 8, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Michele Tatum sent only arrest reports. In an email, Tatum said there was a “policy change in regards to incident reports” and that additional information would be forthcoming.
On September 11, Thomas Sherrill with The New Reporter asked Sheriff Jody Greene about the reports. The sheriff told Sherrill that he objected to releasing information about reported crime, arguing that publication in the newspaper deters the reporting of legitimate criminal complaints.
Later that day, The News Reporter Editor Justin Smith emailed the sheriff the clarify and repeat a request for access to full information under the state’s public records law.
According to the complaint, Chief Deputy Aaron Herring called Smith and said they were not obligated to release any information about any case still under investigation and the “office would not release anything about cases until an arrest is made or the case has been closed.”
On September 23, counsel sent Columbus County Attorney Amanda Prince a letter repeating and clarifying the plaintiff’s requests for all public records. The county attorney did not respond, but the sheriff’s office did post on Facebook about their policy change and that they would withhold incident reports until the case is closed.
When reached by phone, Prince told the plaintiff’s counsel that she believed she had a conflict of interest in representing the office of the sheriff and would not be responding.
On October 2nd, Herring spoke with the plaintiff’s attorney and reiterated the sheriff’s position that only closed cases would be released.
On October 6, Herring emailed files of closed incidents between September 2 through October 5.
Since then, the sheriff’s office has provided the Incident Media Log Details, but only included reports of closed incidents.
As for arrests between September 3 and October 6, for which the sheriff has provides some information, the sheriff still has not provided the circumstances surrounding an arrest, including the time and place of the arrest, whether the arrest involved resistance, possession or use of weapons, or pursuit, and a description of any items seized in connection with the arrest, a violation of General Statute 132-1.4 (c)(3).
The sheriff’s office continues to withhold all records related to cases that are still considered open.
When The News Reporter and Loris-Tabor Tribune reached out to the sheriff’s office for comment on the suit, Herring wrote in an email to the plaintiff’s attorney that “Sheriff Green will not be making any comments about this suit to any of your clients.”