Charleston police ordered to open records
Stephen Singer The Associated Press
(CHARLESTON, S.C.) -- The state Supreme Court on Friday ruled that State Police may be compelled to produce personnel and other documents in a police brutality case, setting a standard on how law enforcement records are subject to review.
In a unanimous decision, the court authorized the opening of records in litigation and ruled that circuit judges may review law enforcement documents and delete confidential information not related to a lawsuit. The judge would decide whether to make records public.
Attorneys for both sides praised the ruling.
"We want State Police as an organization to say we're going to investigate and we're going to stop misconduct and we're going to make information available," said Mary Ellen Griffith, a Princeton lawyer who represents a couple suing police over an alleged beating in May 1999.
Ancil Ramey, a Charleston lawyer representing the officers and State Police, said the Supreme Court made a "very good decision."
The decision "balances the interests of the plaintiffs with the interests of the State Police when plaintiffs are trying to get access to personnel files and internal investigations," he said.
The ruling, written by retiring Justice George Scott, said records of an internal affairs division of a law enforcement agency may be sought in legal action against police if a judge determines that the need for the material outweighs the public interest in maintaining confidentiality.
Police are required to establish a "substantial threshold" showing that damage is likely to result from disclosure.
The justices ruled that exceptions to the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act were not intended to shield law enforcement documents from legitimate demands by lawyers for inspection of documents.
The Supreme Court returned the case to Mercer County Circuit Court, where a lawsuit alleges abuse by a trooper.
Donald Maclay and his wife Karen claim that following a complaint about harassment by Trooper Ronald C. Jones, who is Karen Maclay's ex-husband, Donald Maclay was arrested for illegally registering to vote in 1998 and was physically assaulted by a trooper.
The trooper was not identified in the Supreme Court description of the alleged incident.
The Maclays sued in Mercer County Circuit Court, claiming denial of due process, cruel and unusual punishment and assault.
The couple sought State Police records that Maclay's lawyer says will likely show a pattern of abuse.
Mercer County Circuit Judge John Frazier, finding little guidance in law on the request for documents, sought clarification from the Supreme Court.
Several police beatings have roiled Southern West Virginia in the last few years.
The city of Bluefield agreed in May to pay $ 1 million to cover medical costs for Robert Ellison, whose neck was broken during a scuffle with police in September 1998.
Also in May, Gary Messenger II, a former State Police trooper, was convicted on a federal civil rights violation stemming from the beating of a Welch man who complained about noise and shots from another trooper's retirement party.
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