‘Potentially Dangerous’: How new Alabama Supreme Court ruling could hurt your next case

Alabama ranks last in the U.S. in open records law compliance.
Published: Oct. 13, 2021 at 9:11 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 14, 2021 at 11:08 AM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Dead last. That’s where Alabama ranks in a national study of how states follow their own open records laws. Alabama isn’t just 50th, it’s 51st when you include the District of Columbia.

Alabama ranks 51st in open records law compliance.
Alabama ranks 51st in open records law compliance.(WBRC-TV)

That means if you’re looking to find out who’s spending your tax dollars and how, you’re in the worst place in the country, and that was before a new state supreme court ruling that could tie your hands even further in asking for information that’s supposed to be public.

“We might as well call it closed records law because this can be interpreted very broadly, and that’s very dangerous,” says Sharon Tinsley, President of the Alabama Broadcasters Association (ABA).

The new ruling involves a 2017 case out of Mobile, where a Baldwin County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a driver involved in a one-car accident, who deputies say kept approaching them in a shooting stance, even after multiple commands to stand down.

A weekly paper out of South Alabama asked the sheriff’s department to turn over all body and dash cam video as well as 911 calls and photos from the scene, but the sheriff’s office denied the request, claiming an exemption to the open records law that covers investigative records, even long after prosecutors decided not to charge the deputy involved with a crime.

“If there’s something like body cam video that actually shows something happening, that’s not in question and therefore should be made available,” Tinsley says. “Those things are not necessarily confidential in an investigation because they happened along with the event, and the event is fact.”

That’s the ABA’s position, but the state’s highest court ruled almost unanimously that the exemption keeps those records out of your hands. It’s a ruling so broad that the only dissenter Chief Justice Tom Parker wrote: “With one sweeping stroke, today’s decision spells the end of public access to law-enforcement records that are connected in any way to an investigation.”

“Having the chief justice say ‘this needs to be done’ should get some attention, you’d like to think so,” Tinsley says.

The ABA has worked for the last several years to update the state’s open records law, and more clearly define what you can and can’t have access to and lay out clear timelines to get a response, an effort that’s died in committee each of the last couple of sessions.

“Maybe you had a traffic violation and there was dashcam video, and you wanna request that to go to court to argue whatever charges against you,” Tinsley explains. “You should have the access to that, as well as whatever law enforcement agency had the dashcam in the first place. I don’t think in general people realize ‘that could be me. That could be me or a family member that needs access to this record,’ and it should be unthinkable to you that you wouldn’t be able to get it.”

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