The Buzz

SC police dash cam, FOIA bill dies in stalemate

South Carolina State House in January 2016
South Carolina State House in January 2016 tglantz@thestate.com

Legislation to regulate the release of police dash cam video and to revise the state Freedom of Information Act has died after House and Senate negotiators could not agree to join the two bills.

The House last month swapped revisions to the FOIA in a dash cam bill after a senator halted progress of the FOIA bill in the Senate.

The Senate then rejected what the House did and negotiators tried to reach a compromise but to no avail. Lawmakers adjourned for the year Wednesday night with no agreement on the legislation.

"They wouldn't budge," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Larry Martin of Pickens told The Greenville News. "I really think it boiled down, as much as anything, to the rhetoric directed from a House member to Sen. (Margie) Bright Matthews. The back and forth on that just sort of poisoned the well. And that's never a good thing."

Matthews, a Colleton County Democrat, blocked revisions to the House-passed FOIA bill saying she objected to smaller counties being limited in what they can charge for public records requests following an incident there in which clerks were inundated with such requests.

The proposed revisions would require copying fees for records not exceed rates by copying businesses and would limit fees to retrieve records to rates no higher than the lowest salary of the employees handling the records. Copy charges also would be banned if the information is released in electronic form.

The time agencies have to decide whether to release information would also be cut under the bill from 15 days to 10 days. An administrative process would be established under the bill to handle disputes over information requests to avoid all such disputes being handled before a circuit judge.

Rep. Bill Taylor, an Aiken Republican, had called out Matthews over her objection, telling his constituents that she alone was jeopardizing the bill.

That, in turn, did not set well with Matthews or some of her Senate allies, including Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Darlington County Democrat, who vowed not to accept the FOIA revisions because of what was being said about Matthews.

"The dash cam bill had been worked out," Martin said. "I had been led to believe when the House took that action they were not going to kill that bill by insisting on the FOIA bill. Well my fear was born out."

Martin said he has no objection to the FOIA revisions and he plans to re-file the dash cam bill for next year's session.

Taylor said he "finds it amusing how the senators deflect their responsibility by accusing the House of calling out their rules that allow one senator to block any bill."

"I identified Sen. Bright Matthews because she was, in fact, that obstacle," he said. "Apparently they don't like to be identified individually. It's a shame that the Senate put these two bills in the position that they did. They wanted us to pass the dash cam, first utterance bill and yet they wouldn't pass the FOIA enforcement bill because it hadn't been debated on the Senate floor. Well, the dash cam video bill wasn't debated on the House floor or even in committee because they got everything to us very late."

Taylors said he expects both bills to move forward next year in the House.

Under the Senate dash cam bill, law enforcement dash camera videos of officer shootings would be considered public and available under the state Freedom of Information Act but police and prosecutors could ask a circuit judge to withhold their release if there is “clear and convincing” evidence the video falls under one of several exemptions, such as depriving a defendant the right to a fair trial, interfering with a prospective law enforcement action or constituting an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy.

The hearing must be requested within 15 days and would require a judge’s private review of the video.

Martin said the bill would prevent situations that can occur now in which police withhold a dash cam video but do not explain why or say simply that the investigation is not complete.

Martin in December said he filed his bill in response to the fatal shooting in July of Zachary Hammond, a Seneca teen, by a police officer that was captured on the officer’s dashboard camera.

The News filed a state Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the video after the shooting and eventually sued for its release.

The video was released near the end of October after 10th Circuit Solicitor Chrissy Adams concluded that the officer’s actions did not constitute a crime.

Martin said the bill would provide consistency for law enforcement, prosecutors and the public instead of the current handling of such requests, in which he said police or prosecutors do not have to detail why they are not releasing the video.

The bill offers similar standards for making videos public under federal law.

It also would withhold the utterances of a dying victim captured on a 911 call unless released by the next of kin.

Martin said such situations aren’t common but believes it is respectful of the family to keep such tragic moments out of the public view unless and until they may be broadcast or released in a court proceeding.

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