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Sheriff levies $38-an-hour fee after losing records case

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    News Media Update         ALABAMA         Freedom of Information         April 11, 2005    

Sheriff levies $38-an-hour fee after losing records case

  • A judge’s order that a sheriff release crime reports to the public has prompted the sheriff to charge new fees.

April 11, 2005 — Tuscaloosa County Sheriff Edmund “Ted” Sexton, under court order to disclose the front pages of incident reports except for information that can be withheld as investigatory material, is charging $38 an hour for reports that take more than 15 minutes to find.

Tuscaloosa County Circuit Judge Scott Donaldson ruled March 30 in favor of The Tuscaloosa News in an open records case that Sexton may not systematically withhold all information on the front pages of incident reports kept by his office.

Two days later, Sexton’s new policy went into effect. He charges $38 per hour for the reports if it takes him or his chief deputy more than 15 minutes to find them, consider whether they contain material that would harm an investigation, photocopy them, redact exempt material and re-photocopy redacted copies for release.

Alabama law does not address fees for records but courts have allowed charges. An attorney general’s opinion says records should be provided for free unless “budgetary restraints prevent this.”

News Editor Doug Ray said his newspaper seeks the reports every day. On Friday and Monday the newspaper paid the fees and was called at 4:45 p.m. and told that the reports could be picked up in the next 15 minutes, Ray said. On Tuesday, the newspaper asked to inspect rather than receive copies and Sexton called again at 4:45 p.m. — this time to say that newspaper reporters would not be allowed to merely inspect the cover sheets.

On Thursday the sheriff, who is also the first vice president of the National Sheriffs Association, required reporters to fill out a formal request to examine the daily jail log — showing basic name, charge and booking information. The paper’s reporters previously examined the log daily without formal requests.

Ray said the newspaper held off suing for the reports for several years, fearing that its reporters might ultimately get even less information from the office. But then the sheriff withheld information in a case involving a son shooting his mother and in another involving a youth from a prominent family, Ray said. The newspaper also encountered difficulties in getting information about two shootings involving sheriff’s deputies. “We didn’t have a choice,” but to sue, Ray said.

The $38 hourly fee is based on the average hourly salary of Sexton and Chief Deputy Ron Abernathy, whose yearly salaries break down to $40.48 and $33.85 an hour, respectively, Tuscaloosa County attorney Robert Spence told The Associated Press.

(The Tuscaloosa News v. Sexton, Media Counsel: Gary Huckaby, Huntsville, Ala.)RD

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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