County law passes test

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 4, 2003

As surveyors in a recent Alabama Open Records study found out, law enforcement agencies in the state were split when it came to providing the public with access to the records legally available to them as dictated by Alabama law, when only 45 percent of 62 sheriff's departments surveyed provided records upon request.

This statewide trend held true in south Alabama - and Covington County as well - as four of five requested documents were provided to surveyors.

In Covington County, surveyors not affiliated with local media or organizations visited local jails and police departments seeking two documents - a 24-hour jail log and incident/offense reports. What the surveyors found was a mixed reaction that included one local law enforcement agency denying access to the public record.

At the Covington County Sheriff's Department, a surveyor from Butler County requested to see the jail log. The surveyor discovered that upon initial request, she was asked to wait while the jailer called and asked a supervisor if that request was OK. The jailer, Derrick Adams, was instructed that it was fine to let the surveyor see the document, and he immediately complied with the request.

According to Lt. Walt Inabinett, that's what would have been expected of Adams.

"We follow the Code of Alabama and the Attorney General's opinions, and if we are unsure of whether or not we are unable to comply with a request, we call someone who can tell us the answer," Inabinett said. "In this case, the jailer (Adams) called to make sure he could do that. For as long as I can remember, jail logs have been made available to the public for review. The names of minors might be removed, but that's for their protection and ours. Otherwise, it's a matter of public record, and they have a right to know who's in the jail. The jailer was absolutely correct in calling to verify the request could be granted."

That calling for a clarification is what many law enforcement officials did not do in Alabama when it came to releasing the information.

In Coffee County for example, the sheriff, Ben Moates, denied the surveyor access to the jail log - without calling for clarification, or even upon being read the Code of Alabama.

"I don't even know what a 24-hour jail log is," Sheriff Moates said to the surveyor. "I've never heard of such, have you?"

Moates went on to tell the surveyor that any information on inmates was available only for "victims of crime" and that no one else would have access to it "unless they render us a subpoena of some sort."

But Moates wasn't alone in denying access to records.

Sheriff Mike Blakely of Limestone County said, "I don't think it's your business or anyone else's. The attorney general, I realize, has issued an opinion that they're public, but as far as I'm concerned, he's wrong. Unless some judge orders me to do it, we aren't going to do it."

State law on county jail laws is clear - perhaps clearer than any other public records law. Since 1896, sheriffs have been required to keep records "subject to the inspection of the public during office hours" listing the name, age, sex and race of jailed prisoners, the charges on which they are held, their date of confinement and release.

However, when it came to releasing incident/offense reports, the situations were a little stickier.

Although the Covington County Sheriff's Department, and Debbie Cook, chief clerk, complied with the request - and law, some in Covington County did not.

Inabinett said Cook knows the law on public records from the beginning to the end, and quite frequently, is the one deputies seek clarification from regarding public records.

"Debbie's been in law enforcement for more than 20 years," Inabinett said. "She knows what the law says about public records and what can be given out. If she doesn't know, she knows the person to call or the place to look it up."

As for the ease of obtaining the records at the CCSO for the surveyor, Inabinett said it all had to do with the proper training and education of workers.

"We stay in as much schooling as possible so we can best serve the public," he said. "We stay up to date on the attorney general's opinions and the Alabama Code. It's good leadership at the top that lets us get the continuing schooling to better serve Covington County."

As for other Covington County law enforcement agencies, the Florala Police Department quickly complied with the request, with Chief Lamar Mitchell actually making copies of the requested documents for the surveyor.

According to the surveyor's notes, the records clerk was out, but the police chief found the records and made copies for her - although he did catch on pretty quickly as to what was happening, when he told her jokingly, "They just want to see if I'll give it to you."

The surveyor said that was just good-natured humor from the chief, but that he knew the open records law and was more than willing to accommodate her request.

But it wasn't all so easy in other areas of the county.

In Opp, Records Clerk Connie Kelley complied with the request, but asked for something in return.

According to the surveyor's notes, Kelley was asked who she was and why she wanted them. Upon this request, the surveyor disclosed the fact she was conducting an open records survey and was then asked to fill out a form that included her name, address and why she wanted a copy of the form. It also asked who involved in the report was a family member. The surveyor filled out the form and was given a copy of the reports at no charge.

In Andalusia, however, access to the requested incident/offense reports was denied.

The surveyor was informed by the clerk at the desk that she had never given out the incident/offense reports before and that she would have to check with the chief first to see what his policy was. When told the documents were a matter of public record, the clerk said she knew that, that no one had ever asked for them before.

When asked about how the Star-News got its information about incident reports, she was informed the newspaper received a copy of the daily radio log, not the actual reports.

This denial was the only one among Covington County law enforcement surveyed, but it wasn't uncommon compared to the rest of Alabama.

Over the course of the survey, at least a dozen places informed surveyors it is illegal to release an incident report to anyone but the victim without a subpoena or court order. Few agencies cited an actual law to support their position, with every surveyor providing a copy of the law granting access to such a record.

Courts have agreed that the front page of an incident report is public record, but the back page is not. It's the back page that includes an officers investigation notes and information that could hinder the investigation if released.

"The incident report is just the initial notation that an incident occurred," said Gilbert Johnston, a Birmingham lawyer who is a top expert on Alabama's open records law. "It's not the real investigative report. It doesn't represent all that sensitive body of information."