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Police reports and FOI Act

Posted: February 16, 2012 10:12 a.m.
Updated: February 17, 2012 5:00 a.m.

A bill has been introduced in the S.C. House of Representatives that would, in effect, give police agencies in the state the right to withhold all incident reports, a move that would strike a serious blow to the public’s right to know via the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The legislation, known as H. 4740, was introduced by Rep. Chris Murphy of Summerville and co-sponsors include such powerful lawmakers as Rep. Bobby Harrell, the Speaker of the House, and Rep. James Harrison, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

The bill would insert language into the FOI Act that would allow police to withhold “information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action or criminal prosecution.” That pretty much covers nearly every arrest made in the state and, according to Bill Rogers, executive director of the S. C. Press Association, provides “carte blanche to withhold every police report.” The current law allows only the withholding of information that, if released prematurely, would harm the agency in a prosecution. That provision was recently upheld by a recent ruling against the Department of Public Safety for routinely failing to release video tapes and reports in Greenwood and other locations around the state. The language in the existing law would be omitted in the proposed legislation.

The bill would also allow police to withhold information that would harm a victim or a witness, and would allow correspondence to be withheld that “undermines the open communication among victims, law enforcement and prosecutors.” We agree with Rogers that while those provisions sound good in theory, they are so nebulous that they would cause problems and invite abuse.

The public, which pays the salaries of law enforcement agencies, has the right to know what’s contained in incident reports -- who’s being arrested, and for what. This bill would be a giant step backward in that regard and would undermine open government and law enforcement across the Palmetto State. We hope it meets a quick end.

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