Alabama Supreme Court ruling gives law enforcement authority to broadcast body camera footage or not

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) – Cameras can capture moments words can’t always describe, or act as an independent verification, especially when police interact with the community from both perspectives.

However, an Alabama Supreme Court ruling will make it more difficult for you, the taxpayer and members of the media, to see what these cameras are capturing.

The decision came following a lawsuit between a Mobile media outlet and the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office, stemming from this scene of a 2017 MP involved in a shooting.

The sheriff’s office has refused to release body camera footage showing what led to the murder of a driver who was pulled over on a freeway after what has been called an altercation with an assistant.

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

Lawyer Tommy James tells us that this ruling expands the law that protects evidence gathered in law enforcement investigations.

Many are now concerned that law enforcement agencies may choose what evidence to release to the public if someone files an open case request.

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

The Alabama Supreme Court ruling worries human rights activists, judicial coalitions and even members of the media.

“Even though we can try to hold these departments to account, they can fall back on the Supreme Court’s decision and continue to keep the records,” Mesnil said.

The ruling revolves around the investigative privilege law.

“The things that are generated as a result of an investigation, such as witness statements and officers’ notes, the calculations they may make, are protected by this privilege,” said attorney Tommy James.

In that case, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that all documents involved in the police investigation must be protected, including body camera images.

All the judges agreed, except for a dissenting opinion from Chief Justice Parker.

He argued that everything that happens during and before the crime, such as video and audio recordings, should be made public after an investigation.

But whatever happens after the crime is up to the department to share or not.

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

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

But Claudia Mesnil, of the Citizens Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform, fears a more bitter fight for transparency.

“This lets citizens know that it will be more difficult to trust the police because they will not be transparent about what is happening between them and ordinary people on the street,” she said. .

One of the Supreme Court justices who approved the ruling said he was confident the departments would release a video if necessary.

Lawyer Tommy James says he expects the newspaper to appeal the ruling and that we will see many more lawsuits to come.

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