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Alabama Supreme Court Ruling gives police departments power to release body camera footage or not

Published: Sep. 24, 2021 at 10:27 PM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) -Cameras can capture moments words can’t always describe, or be an independent verification especially when police interact with the community from both points of view.

However, a ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court will make seeing what those cameras capture harder for you, the taxpayer and members of the media.

The ruling came after a lawsuit between a Mobile media outlet and the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office, stemming from this scene of a 2017 Deputy involved shooting.

The sheriff’s office refused to release body camera footage showing what led up to the killing of a driver who was stopped on a highway after what was called an altercation with a deputy.

Now, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in favor of the sheriff’s office.

Attorney Tommy James tells us this decision broadens the law that protects evidence collected in law enforcement investigations.

Many fear now, police departments will be able to pick and choose what evidence to release to the public if someone files an open records request.

“Departments are going to be able to hide behind this ruling and use it as a way to keep the records instead of releasing them,” Claudia Mesnil, a liaison for the Citizens Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform said.

The Alabama Supreme Court’s Ruling is alarming human rights activists, justice coalitions and even members of the media.

“Even though we can try to hold those departments accountable, they can fall back on the supreme court’s decision and continue to keep the records,” Mesnil said.

The decision centers around the investigative-privilege statute.

“Things that are generated as a result of an investigation such as witness statements, and notes of officers, calculations they may make, those are protected by this privilege,” Attorney Tommy James said.

In this case, the Alabama Supreme Court decided all materials involved in the police investigation should be protected, including body camera footage.

All justices agreed except for one dissenting opinion from Chief Justice Parker.

He argued anything that happens during and before the crime, like video and audio recordings, should be released to the public after an investigation.

But anything that happens after the crime, it’s up to the department to share it or not.

“Chief Justice Parker, he says this turns the Alabama Opens Record Act to the Alabama Closed Records Act. Anything at all related to a criminal investigation can be protected, withheld and not produced. And that would include things like body cams, dash cams, maybe even things like autopsy reports and 911 calls,” James said.

Only after former Huntsville Police officer William Darby was convicted of murder, years after the incident, a judge allowed the body camera video to be released to the public.

But Claudia Mesnil with the Citizens Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform fears a tougher fight for transparency.

“It lets citizens know that it’s going to be more difficult to trust law enforcement because they’re not going to be transparent about what happens between them and regular people in the streets,” she said.

One of the Supreme Court justices who agreed with the ruling said he has confidence departments will release video when appropriate.

Attorney Tommy James says he expects the newspaper to appeal this ruling and that we’ll see many more lawsuits to come.

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