Judge sides with media outlets in public records lawsuit against Columbus County sheriff
COLUMBUS COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - A judge on Monday sided with a coalition of media outlets, including WECT, that filed a public records lawsuit against Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene over his office’s release of criminal records.
Judge John Smith ruled that the sheriff’s office records are public record once they’re created and not, as the sheriff tried to argue, when they are approved by him. The records are also to be provided in a timely fashion, which Judge Smith defined as according to the schedule and pattern that existed prior to Sept. 2020.
Prior to the lawsuit, the sheriff’s office would routinely send an incident report and booking report on weekdays but between Sept. 3 and Sept. 8, no reports were sent to area media outlets. On Sept. 8, a sheriff’s office spokesperson emailed booking reports but no incident reports, saying that the “Columbus County Sheriff’s Office is implementing a policy change in regards to incident reports. Additional information will be emailed to you in the near future.”
On Sept. 11, Sheriff Greene spoke with a reporter for the Whiteville News Reporter and said he objected to releasing the information about reported crime, arguing that publication of criminal information in the newspaper deters the reporting of legitimate criminal complaints.
Chief deputy Aaron Herring told the newspaper’s editor that the sheriff’s office was not obligated to release any information about any case still under investigation, and would only release information on cases where an arrest was made or cases that were considered closed.
During Monday’s hearing, Judge Smith was skeptical of Herring’s defense of the policy change and doubted any lawyer would have signed off on it.
Amanda Martin of Stevens, Martin, Vaught and Tadych represented WECT, the News Reporter, the Tabor-Loris Tribune , and WWAY in the lawsuit.
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