Decatur Daily. September 28, 2021.
Editorial: State high court hobbles open government
The Alabama Supreme Court has gutted the state’s open records law as it regards law enforcement, making it far more difficult to hold law enforcement accountable.
In a shocking and sweeping decision last week, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled law enforcement is virtually immune from the state’s open records laws.
The ruling is a grossly expansive misreading of an exception to public records requests involving ongoing investigations and puts law enforcement behind a veil of secrecy at a time when exactly the opposite is needed for law enforcement to maintain public trust.
The case involved The Lagniappe, a weekly news outlet in Mobile, which had filed a lawsuit after being denied records related to the 2017 shooting of motorist Jonathan Victor, according to The Associated Press. The incident was investigated by the Baldwin County Major Crimes Unit, and a grand jury cleared Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Matt Hunady in the shooting.
“All materials requested by Lagniappe are related to the incident regarding Cpl. Hunady, which was the subject of a criminal investigation. The very wording of Lagniappe’s request, seeking all the ‘records related to the shooting,’ seeks such investigative material. ... Thus, the investigative-privilege exception applies,” justices wrote in their near-unanimous decision.
The lone dissenter was Chief Justice Tom Parker, who didn’t hold back in his assessment of the damage his colleagues had done with their ruling.
“With one sweeping stroke, today’s decision spells the end of public access to law-enforcement records that are connected in any way to an investigation,” Parker. “Hidden now from the public eye are body-cam videos, dash cam videos, 9-1-1 recordings, and anything else that is remotely connected to a crime or even potential crime. After today, as to law-enforcement agencies at least, the statute might as well be titled the Closed Records Act.”
The majority’s opinion clearly goes against the intent of the state’s open records law and the exception for law enforcement, which was never intended to seal away investigative records for all time or regardless of their source.
“Today the Alabama Supreme Court issued a ruling that will greatly curtail efforts to hold law enforcement accountable through open record requests,” said J. Evans Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association. “… The opinion appears to say these records are to be hidden from the public regardless of the source or whether the investigation is concluded.”
One need look no farther than the case of former Huntsville police officer William Darby, who was convicted of murder after the Madison County district attorney decided to bring a case to trial after an internal review cleared Darby.
The body cam footage made public by the DA after the trial shows why he brought the case, and raises serious questions about the inner workings of the Huntsville Police Department, but absent a party willing to release them, such footage could remain hidden from the public under last week’s court ruling. It is impossible for law enforcement to maintain public trust when they’re shielded from public scrutiny.
The court has now left it to the state Legislature to revisit the open meetings law and rewrite it in language even the court majority can understand.
Dothan Eagle. September 27, 2021.
Editorial: Disingenuous ‘rescue’
Alabama lawmakers are back in Montgomery this week in a special legislative session convened by Gov. Kay Ivey to hammer out a strategy to pay for an ambitious $1.3 billion prison construction plan.
Some elements are already on the table. The plan would build three new prisons and renovate others, and would take place in phases. There’s a possibility of a $785 million bond issue, and $150 million from the General Fund.
Then there is $2.2 billion in American Rescue Plan funds burning a hole in lawmakers’ pockets, so there are some who would poach $400 million from the COVID relief funding to help pay for prisons.
There are “many, many fewer restrictions” on these federal dollars, said Rep. Greg Albritton, chairman of the Senate general fund budget committee.
Perhaps. The federal government isn’t making decisions about how states can use the money, but expects any funds spent in inappropriate ways to be repaid by the states.
That should give lawmakers pause. And just because they can – assuming they can – doesn’t mean they should.
Alabama hasn’t suffered greatly from the pandemic from a fiscal perspective. The state’s 2020 revenue grew by more than 3% over 2019 revenue, despite the challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic. That’s more than most state residents can say about their own household revenue. In fact, many residents had drastic reversals of fortune, with job loss, lost income, and inability to pay bills. Some people lost their businesses. Many others had unexpected medical bills directly related to COVID-19. Tragically, some had unexpected funeral expenses.
The intent of American Rescue Plan funds is to address those devastating circumstances, and is likely the reasoning behind the dearth of restrictions on the funds.
It’s difficult to imagine that any rationale to use the money for prison construction is anything but disingenuous, and more than a little insulting to Alabamians who truly need a financial rescue.