Alabama Chief Justice's Dissent Blasts Fellow Judges for Shrinking Citizens' Legal Rights

The Alabama chief justice blasted his fellow judges' ruling that a sheriff's office did not have to turn over records about a fatal shooting by a deputy to a news organization, the Associated Press reported.

"With one sweeping stroke, today's decision spells the end of public access to law-enforcement records that are connected in any way to an investigation," Chief Justice Tom Parker wrote in his dissent. "I cannot sit idly by while this Court shrinks a legal right of the people of Alabama to the vanishing point. And I especially cannot do so when that shrinkage flies in the face of text and precedent."

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled against allowing the news outlet access to information about the fatal shooting based on the request's wording, citing an investigative exemption. Parker was the lone dissent to the ruling.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Alabama Supreme Court
Alabama's Supreme Court ruled Friday that a sheriff's office did not have to turn over records about a fatal shooting by a deputy to a news organization, prompting the chief justice, who cast the lone dissenting vote, to accuse his fellow judges of shrinking citizens' rights. Above, the Supreme Court of Alabama in Montgomery on July 6, 2018. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Lagniappe, a weekly news outlet, had filed a lawsuit after being denied records related to the 2017 shooting of motorist Jonathan Victor. The incident was investigated by the Baldwin County Major Crimes Unit and a grand jury cleared Baldwin County Sheriff's Deputy Corporal Matt Hunady in the shooting. Hunady shot Victor after a one-car accident in which Victor ran off the interstate.

Officials did show video taken from the body camera of the deputy who shot Victor and video from a bystander to news outlets after the grand jury decision. FOX10 reported that Victor continued to approach Hunady and several other deputies while in a shooting stance despite multiple commands to stand down. No gun was found on Victor or in his car, but he had a pair of scissors and investigators said his wrists were bleeding.

Justices on Friday upheld a lower court's ruling in favor of the Baldwin County Sheriff's Office denying the records to Lagniappe. Justices ruled the records fall under an exemption for investigative records.

Lagniappe had sought records including dash cam, body cam and third-party video; the audio from any 911 calls or radio communications; photographs from the scene; autopsy records; and communications such as emails, text messages and other forms of messaging.

The investigation had ended without an indictment, but the court majority wrote that the records were covered by the investigative exemption.

"All materials requested by Lagniappe are related to the incident regarding Cpl. Hunady, which was the subject of a criminal investigation. The very wording of Lagniappe's request, seeking all the "records related to the shooting," seeks such investigative material....Thus, the investigative-privilege exception applies," justices wrote.