- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Law enforcement agencies in South Carolina would need a judge’s permission to withhold dashcam video under legislation intended to prevent police from indefinitely blocking the public’s ability to scrutinize an officer’s action.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said Thursday his bill could inject confidence in a police decision.

Currently, if a public records request is denied, the only recourse for a family or news organization is to sue. But that’s too expensive to be a real option in many cases, said Martin, R-Pickens.

“I just want to add a step” to current law, he said. “The idea is to give another set of eyes, an impartial third party to decide whether a request to get the information out should be denied.”

Currently, law enforcement can avoid taking disciplinary actions against officers by refusing to release dashcam video, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, which is backing the bill.

Under the proposal, law enforcement agencies wanting to deny a Freedom of Information request would need a Circuit Court judge to agree that releasing the video would be harmful. If the judge agrees, the person requesting the video could still sue for its release.

While dashcam video is often released upon request, Martin said, when it’s not, the rationale is questionable.

“I’ve seen these things denied, and they don’t even cite” a legal reason, he said.

Without naming the case, he pointed to one public records request that is more than a year old.

Last year, The Aiken Standard newspaper and The Associated Press sued the State Law Enforcement Division over its refusal to release dashcam video in the case of a North Augusta officer awaiting trial on a charge of firing into a vehicle after a police chase.

Officer Justin Craven tried to pull 68-year-old Ernest Satterwhite over for drunken driving, then followed him with blue lights to his home after Satterwhite refused to stop in February 2014, authorities said. When Satterwhite stopped in his driveway, Craven ran up to his car and fired several shots through the closed door, telling deputies later that Satterwhite tried to grab his gun, according to a report from Edgefield County deputies who joined the chase after it crossed the county line.

The fatal shooting was captured on the officer’s dashboard camera, but state police have steadfastly refused to release it. Satterwhite’s family has already reached a $1.2 million settlement with North Augusta over the shooting.

SLED Chief Mark Keel has said he worries releasing the video could hamper the officer’s right to a fair trial.

But Martin said Thursday that a fair-trial argument is not among the law’s allowed exemptions.

The law specifies that authorities can refuse to release dashcam videos or other evidence only if they disclose the identity of informants, will be used in a future police action, reveal investigatory techniques, endanger someone’s life or property or give intercepted communications not used in trial.

Some senators want to amend Martin’s bill to insert the fair-trial argument into state law. A Senate Judiciary panel postponed taking any action Thursday.

“I’m very concerned with balancing the public’s interest with the interest of a fair and impartial trial to defendants and the state,” said Republican Sen. Greg Hembree, the former chief prosecutor for Horry and Georgetown counties. “We’ve got to find the sweet spot between those two places, and that’s a challenge.”

But Martin said any effort to fundamentally change the law will kill the bill, and he’s not willing to compromise.

“I’m proposing a slight change to add confidence,” he said. “You start tweaking it different directions, and it ain’t going anywhere.”

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