COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House is considering two bills that could change the way South Carolina citizens get information from police and their local and state governments.
Freedom of Information Act experts like one bill, which could reduce administrative and copying cost for records, but fear the other one could allow law enforcement too much latitude to decide what information gets released to the public.
Supporters of the law enforcement bill said it is needed to protect crime witnesses and victims.
Police agencies across the state are already illegally restricting information, according to media lawyer Jay Bender.
• Columbia Police initially refused to release a police report on a potential sexual assault in a bar district popular with college students to the University of South Carolina’s student newspaper more than three days after it happened because the department said it was still under investigation. The state’s FOI law requires police reports from the past 14 days to be available to anyone who asks without question. Columbia police did eventually release a heavily redacted report to The Daily Gamecock.
• In Fort Mill, a person working for The Fort Mill Times asking for police reports for the month of January was given only reports from two days. Officials said the other reports hadn’t been reviewed by a supervisor. Bender said state law requires police reports to be available to the public as soon as the officer is finished writing them.
• In Charleston, The Post and Courier newspaper obtained a memo from a top city police official encouraging officers to keep sensitive information out of the reports released to the public.
Bender said a bill sponsored by 34 House members could make those kinds of decisions legal. The bill would allow a public body to refuse to release to the public “information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action or criminal prosecution.”
“That could be practically any information the police don’t want to release,” Bender said.
Currently, law enforcement, prosecutors or defense attorneys have the burden of proof to show why certain information – such as the current fight over whether to release dashboard camera video of a shooting that killed an Aiken police officer – should not be released. Bender’s take on the new law is that the public would have to prove why it shouldn’t be released.
“Why should people who want information generated by their tax money have to spend their own money to get that information?” Bender said.
One of the sponsors of the bill said he thinks criticism of the proposal is overblown. Rep. Tommy Pope was a lawman and the chief prosecutor for 13 years in York and Union counties before being elected to the South Carolina House. He said the goal of the bill is to protect witnesses and citizens and anyone who suggests it could create a police state is being unfair.
The bill also makes it easier for prosecutors to do their jobs, said the York Republican, who fought several battles with the media over releasing information when he prosecuted the Susan Smith case in 1995.
The bill is currently in the House Judiciary Committee.
The other FOI bill in the House has just four sponsors and is also in committee. It would ban public agencies from charging more than fair market rates for copies.
The proposal would also keep agencies from charging any more than the actual cost of searching for a record. Some public bodies have passed on the cost of having a lawyer review the records before they are released.
The sponsor of the bill is Rep. Bill Taylor. The Aiken Republican is a media consultant and he made the bill the top item on a recent e-mailed memo to his constituents.
“You have a right to know what your government is doing and why,” Taylor wrote. “After all, you’re paying for it!”