“Statute might as well be titled the Closed Records Act.” Chief justice excoriates ruling guts access to police records

Published 6:52 am Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Alabama Supreme Court on Friday ruled that a sheriff’s office did not have to turn over records about a fatal shooting by a deputy, a ruling that broadly interpreted an exemption for investigative records and prompted a sharply worded dissent by the court’s chief justice.

“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,” Chief Justice Tom Parker wrote. “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.”

Lagniappe, a weekly news outlet, had filed a lawsuit after being denied records related to the 2017 shooting of motorist Jonathan Victor. 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. Hunady fatally shot Victor after a one-car accident in which Victor ran off the interstate.

Justices on Friday upheld a lower court’s ruling in favor of the Baldwin County sheriff’s office denying the records to Lagniappe. Justices ruled the records fall under an exemption for investigative records.

Lagniappe had sought records including dashcam, bodycam and third-party video; the audio from any 911 calls or radio communications; photographs from the scene; autopsy records; and communications such as emails, text messages, and other forms of messaging. The court majority wrote that the records were covered by the investigative exemption.

“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.

Law enforcement officials did show news outlets video taken from the body camera of the deputy who shot Victor and video from a bystander after the grand jury decision. FOX10 reported Victor approached Hunady while in a shooting stance despite multiple commands to stand down. No gun was found on Victor or in his car, but he had a pair of scissors and investigators said his wrists were bleeding.

But Lagniappe co-publisher Rob Holbert says the news outlet only obtained the full records when they became evidence in a civil lawsuit filed by Victor’s family, and said they revealed a “troubling set of circumstances that ultimately led to Mr. Victor’s death.”

Holbert said the court’s decision, “massively widens the definition of investigative materials in this case, to include video of the actual occurrence that sparked a subsequent investigation.”

“This ruling leaves it up to the police to police the police. If this is Alabama’s definition of open records, we’re in a world of hurt,” Holbert said.