Law enforcement agencies would not be able to keep dashboard camera videos of police shootings secret without a court order under legislation that passed the South Carolina Senate on Wednesday.
The measure passed unanimously with little debate, just two weeks after it cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee. It now heads to the House of Representatives.
Under current law, the release of dashcam video can be kept secret if the investigating agency, usually the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), says its release may harm their investigation. Such a decision was made by SLED to hold up the release of video from the shooting death of a Seneca teenager in July 2015. SLED eventually released the video of Zachary Hammond’s death only after a solicitor determined the shooting was justified. State police have also refused open records requests for the video of Justin Craven, a former North Augusta officer charged with firing his weapon into the car of an unarmed man following a chase in February 2014. Craven faces trial later this year.
State Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said his bill would require a judge to make the final decision on whether video could be made public. The judge must cite clear and convincing evidence if footage could not be released, under the bill. Footage could be protected if prosecutors show it could jeopardize a fair trial, interfere with investigations or be an unreasonable invasion of a person’s privacy.
“Rather than have a circumstances where a law enforcement agency… doesn’t say much as to why they’re withholding a dashcam video and makes some statement that their investigation is not complete,” Martin said on the Senate floor. “Well, that’s not what the law says. The law says it has to be harmful to the (investigation). And oftentimes, that’s a pretty nebulous standard.”
The Anderson Independent-Mail reports at least one Upstate sheriff is uncomfortable with the bill. Anderson County Sheriff John Skipper told the paper he worried making the video public early could cause “the premature releasing of evidence,” leading to conclusions by a public that does not have all the facts.
Martin said he believes that moving the release decision of video to a judge instead of a prosecutor would maintain a court case’s integrity.