SLED to charge for checks
In their role as the public's watchdog, reporters often request criminal background histories on suspects, people in the spotlight or candidates running for public office.
Such checks can flag shady pasts or lengthy criminal records and add important context to news stories that educate and inform the public.
But apparently, this service also is costly. At least, that's what the State Law Enforcement Division implied this week when it announced that it will stop providing courtesy copies to media outlets and will now charge $25 for each criminal background check. The agency says the move is a cost-saving measure in response to statewide budget cuts.
SLED previously provided reporters writing stories about criminal suspects two complimentary copies per day. Beyond that, newspapers and other news organizations were required to pay the same $25 fee that is charged to all members of the public.
Charitable groups, mentors and recreation commissions will continue to pay a reduced fee of $8.
William Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said the change won't affect only the media. Fees can become hurdles to public information that ultimately harm citizens by hindering access to public information, he said.
"I think it's going to make it tougher for the public to find out what the records are of some of these suspects. The public is going to be the loser."
The press association, which represents more than 100 daily and weekly newspapers in South Carolina, already has heard concerns from several of its members and is considering legal options for challenging SLED's decision, Rogers said.
SLED says it's under no obligation to provide free reports to the media. Though it will continue to provide courtesy copies of criminal records to reporters covering news releases and news conferences.
"We don't have any say as to how much the fee is going to cost. That's in the state law," said SLED communications director Jennifer Timmons. "It's not a fee increase. In the past it was a courtesy."
She estimated that her office processes from five to eight complimentary records on an average day. The requests often are handled electronically via e-mail, she said.
The state Freedom of Information Act allows, but does not require, public bodies to charge "reasonable" fees that reflect the actual cost of researching or copying records. Agencies are encouraged to charge the lowest possible cost and can reduce or waive such fees when the requested information is in the public interest.
Charles N. Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri, said pulling the plug on complimentary background checks reeks of an attempt to fill state coffers.
"As taxpayers, you've already paid for that data," Davis said. "Those are our records, and they want to make a buck off of them. They can't argue that it costs them $25 and keep a straight face."
Timmons said the agency could not provide any figures on how much such requests cost SLED or how much the agency expects to save by charging for all criminal background checks. Answering those questions would require research, and The Post and Courier would need to request that information through the state Freedom of Information Act, she said.
With state government facing budget shortfalls, more agencies are likely to look for savings or generate revenue in ways that may further limit access to public information, Rogers said. "Unfortunately, it's a harbinger of a lot of things to come with a lot of public agencies."
Jay Bender, an attorney for the press association and an expert on the state's open records law, said he still is researching the issue but suspects SLED may be well within its rights to charge a fee that already is established in state law.
Given the severity of the state's budget crisis, it could be tough to mount an argument against an agency looking for ways to trim its spending, Bender said.
"I don't think it violates the spirit of the (open records) law," he said. "I just hope SLED is not making an effort to become a profit center."