Ala. chief justice says ruling guts public access to police records
“Today’s decision spells the end of public access to law-enforcement records," said Chief Justice Tom Parker
By Kim Chandler
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — 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. “I cannot sit idly by while this Court shrinks a legal right of the people of Alabama to the vanishing point. And I especially cannot do so when that shrinkage flies in the face of text and precedent,” he added. Parker was the lone dissent to the ruling.
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 Deputy, Cpl. Matt Hunady in the shooting. Hunady shot Victor after a one-car accident in which Victor ran off the interstate.
Officials did show video taken from the body camera of the deputy who shot Victor and video from a bystander to news outlets after the grand jury decision. FOX10 reported Victor continued to approach Hunady and several other deputies 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.
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 dash cam, body cam, 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 investigation had ended without an indictment, but 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.