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Appeals court grants reporter access to internal affairs records

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    News Media Update         SOUTH CAROLINA         Freedom of Information    

Appeals court grants reporter access to internal affairs records

  • Holding that a sheriff’s department in York County, S.C., does not have “carte blanche to deny all FOIA requests for criminal investigative reports,” a state appeals court granted a local newspaper reporter access to criminal and internal affairs documents.

April 23, 2004 — A South Carolina appeals court earlier this month granted a newspaper reporter access to police internal investigation reports concerning the on-duty illegal activities of four deputies in York County.

In affirming a trial court’s decision to grant reporter Ray Burton of The (Rock Hill) Herald criminal and internal investigation reports, the state Court of Appeals held, “The newspaper, in fulfilling its obligation to report on and hold to account those in public service, had a legitimate need to access the records.”

Burton received a tip in early 2000 that four York County, S.C., deputies had taken part in the “falsification of investigative reports, possession of stolen property, abuse of authority, and sexual activity in patrol cars,” according to court records.

Following an internal investigation, the deputies — who are not identified in the court record — were suspended without pay for “conduct unbecoming of an officer.”

Burton filed a Freedom of Information request for the reports, but the Sheriff’s Department denied it. The department said the records were exempt from the South Carolina FOI Act because they concerned “personal” documents protected under the privacy exemption.

The Herald brought suit, and Magistrate Court Judge J. Buford Grier ruled in February 2002 that all of the records — except those concerning the deputies’ off-duty sex life — should be public, and ordered them released. The Sheriff’s Department appealed, and the state appeals court affirmed the decision April 5.

(Burton v. York County Sheriff’s Department; Media Counsel: Jay Bender, Baker, Barwick, Ravenel and Bender, Columbia, S.C.) LH

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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