By WECT Staff | October 30, 2020 at 4:02 PM EDT – Updated October 30 at 4:11 PM
COLUMBUS COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) – Several area media outlets, including WECT, filed a lawsuit Friday against Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene claiming his office is withholding incident reports, which are public record.
Amanda Martin of Stevens, Martin, Vaught and Tadych filed the complaint on behalf of WECT, the News Reporter, the Tabor-Loris Tribune and WWAY.
The complaint requests an order requiring the release of the requested reports and for Greene to revise his policy “to comply with the Public Records Law’s demand that access be given to comparable information in the future as promptly as possible.”
According to the complaint, the sheriff’s office would routinely send an incident report and booking report on weekdays but between Sept. 3 and Sept. 8, no reports were sent to the plaintiffs.
On Sept. 8, sheriff’s office spokesperson Michele Tatum emailed booking reports to media outlets but no incident reports.
Tatum’s email stated the “Columbus County Sheriff’s Office is implementing a policy change in regards to incident reports. Additional information will be emailed to you in the near future.”
On Sept. 11, Thomas Sherrill with the News Reporter asked Sheriff Greene about the reports.
“Sheriff Greene told Mr. Sherrill that he objected to releasing information about reported crime, arguing that publication of criminal information in the newspaper deters the reporting of legitimate criminal complaints,” the complaint states.
Later that same day, Justin Smith, editor of The News Reporter, emailed Greene to repeat the newspaper’s request for the incident reports. Chief Deputy Aaron Herring called Smith and “informed him that it was the position of the Sheriff’s Office that they were not obligated to release any information about any case still under investigation,” according to the complaint.
Herring said the office would only release information on cases once an arrest was made or the case had been closed.
On Sept. 23, the plaintiff’s counsel sent a letter to Columbus County Attorney Amanda Prince repeating the request, citing N.C. General Statute 132-1.4.
In response to the requests, Greene stated in a post on the sheriff’s office Facebook page he would withhold incident reports “until the case is closed.”
The post can be seen here.
Prince told the plaintiff’s counsel in a phone call on Sept. 28 that she believed she had a conflict of interest in representing the sheriff and would not be responding.
During a phone call on Oct. 2, Herring reiterated the sheriff’s position that only information on closed cases would be released.
On Oct. 6, Herring sent a file containing 114 incident reports for cases considered closed.
Since Oct. 6, the sheriff’s office has only sent out incident reports for cases considered closed.
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