COLUMBIA -- The S.C. Highway Patrol cannot refuse to release videotapes and other public information from arrests and traffic stops simply because charges are pending against a suspect, a judge ruled.
The agency has routinely denied public records requests for the tapes from newspapers, TV stations and citizens for years as a case waits for trial. But Circuit Judge James Barber ruled last month the Public Safety Department, which oversees troopers, must show specific proof about how releasing the information will harm the case.
The suit arose from troopers' refusal to release the videotape and other information about the September 2010 arrest of a Greenwood councilwoman, even after a Freedom of Information Act request from The Index-Journal of Greenwood.
To prove that the Public Safety Department didn't have a specific reason to deny the request, Doug Pardue, quick response editor at The Post and Courier, collected a number of examples from around the state. In those instances, the agency denied releasing public information simply because there was a criminal case pending, said Jay Bender, a lawyer who argued the case and frequently defends news outlets in South Carolina in public records cases.
Barber agreed that was too vague a reason to deny releasing information that would normally be available to the public. He said troopers need to show how the information would show particular harm, like releasing the name of a suspect before an arrest or the location of a sting operation.
Public Safety spokesman Sid Gaulden said the agency is reviewing the ruling. The councilwoman's case is pending, as prosecutors appeal a judge's ruling tossing some evidence.
By refusing to release records that clearly belong to the public, law enforcement agencies like the Highway Patrol cast a shadow about their actions to the people they promise to protect, said Bill Rogers, S.C. Press Association executive director.
"Routinely withholding reports and videos casts a blanket of secrecy over police activity," said Rogers, pointing out a Horry County case two years ago in which troopers refused to release the tape of a DUI arrest of a pro golfer. "Timely release of this information allows the public to know that politicos and sports stars are being treated just like the rest of us."