GREENVILLE, SC State Sen. Larry Martin said he plans to introduce a bill that would require law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to get approval from a judge to withhold videos taken at the scene of a crime beyond the period allowed in the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The legislation comes at a time when video shot from the dashboard camera of a police vehicle has been withheld from the family of a teenager who was shot and killed by a Seneca Police officer, as well as from The Greenville News and other media outlets that have filed Freedom of Information Act requests.
The State Law Enforcement Division denied the newspaper’s request, saying to release it now would cause harm to the investigation.
Martin, a Pickens Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he believes there may be cases in which withholding such videos could be in the public interest, such as when authorities want to get statements from people involved in an incident without them seeing the video first.
But he believes that determination should be made by a judge rather than by the investigating agency.
Many videos of police-involved shootings, assaults on police officers and incidents in which use of excessive force is alleged have been released with no problem, Martin noted.
“And the public can’t differentiate and the media often times does not differentiate between what’s a legitimate need for holding back versus just a desire from keeping the public from seeing it,” he said. “So that’s the concern I’m going to try to address.”
Under Martin's bill, if a law enforcement agency or prosecutor believes releasing a video could harm its investigation, it could ask a judge to view it in his chamber and give specific reasons why it thinks the video should be withheld beyond the 15 working days allowed by the Freedom of Information Act.
The judge would be authorized to order it be released immediately or allow a “reasonable period of time” for it to be withheld, he said.
If, after that time period, possibly two weeks or 30 days, the recording in question isn’t released, a lawsuit could be lodged seeking its release, as can be done now.
Martin said he doesn’t believe a news organization or the public should have to bear the cost of litigation as a first recourse in getting police recordings released.
“The public’s got a right to know. The media has a right to public information in a way that’s consistent,” he said. “And right now there seems to be a little more inconsistency in the way it's being done.”
A state law passed this year requires all law enforcement officers to wear body cams. As funding for them becomes available, the issue will grow in prevalence, he said.
In the Seneca case, SLED turned its report on the July 26 incident over to 10th Circuit Solicitor Chrissy Adams on Aug. 31. Adams said last week she plans to wait on making a decision in the case and releasing the video until federal authorities who are conducting separate investigations have provided their reports, which she expects to take “several weeks.”
The family of Zachary Hammond, who was shot in a Hardee's parking lot by Seneca Police Lt. Mark Tiller during a marijuana bust involving a passenger in Hammond’s car, argues that there’s no legitimate reason the video shouldn’t have been released already.Tiller said he shot Hammond because he believed the 19-year-old was trying to run over him with his car, but the angle of the bullets' entry raised questions as to whether he could have been in danger.
“In this particular case, Zachary is dead, there have been no threats made against Tiller,” the family’s attorney, Eric Bland said. “There’s been no allegations of witness intimidation.
“So there simply is no reason in this particular case why the videos and audios and reports shouldn’t be released.”
Martin’s bill is “a good start” toward a better system, he said.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of distrust that goes on the longer you withhold a video or audio of a potential crime or a report by SLED,” he said. “It just breeds distrust in the public in governmental officials that something inappropriate is being done.”
Bland also filed pleadings with the state Supreme Court calling for Attorney General Alan Wilson to remove Adams from the case, based on what he calls a conflict of interest. He wants the high court to set a precedent that would take all decisions of whether law enforcement officers should be charged with crimes out of the hands of solicitors who work with the law enforcement agencies involved.
Wilson filed a response to that request, arguing that it would be up to the Legislature to change the law in order for that to happen.
Martin said he doesn’t foresee a change in the law in that regard.
“I haven’t fully decided what if anything needs to be done in that,” he said. “I can see the merit of a solicitor doing that on a case-by-case basis.”
But he doesn’t think a “blanket” rule would solve all issues of conflict of interest because solicitors in adjoining circuits often interact with other nearby law enforcement agencies.