On Friday, August 28, the Civitas Institute Center for Law and Freedom (CLF) filed suit against the City of Belmont, North Carolina, alleging violations of state public records law.
The suit, filed on behalf of two individual plaintiffs, seeks to clarify the extent to which the city can refuse to release the results of a third-party investigation into its police department. CLF filed the complaint in Gaston County Superior Court.
Earlier this year, Dan Deitz and Ellen Deitz Tucker filed a public records request with the city asking to see the results of an investigation into the Belmont Police Department (BPD). The siblings hoped that the investigation would shed light on the death of their sister, Donna Deitz, who was an innocent bystander killed by a motorist fleeing BPD officers in 2012.
Belmont issued a blanket denial of the public records request, citing N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-168. That statute provides that certain personnel records are not subject to North Carolina’s public records law, and cannot be disclosed by cities.
The city is painting with far too broad a brush,” CLF Staff Attorney Elliot Engstrom said. “While some personnel records certainly are private, that law cannot be invoked to avoid releasing the results of a third-party, taxpayer-funded investigation.”
The investigation was conducted by the U.S. ISS Agency of Huntersville. Thus far the city has refused to release any portion of the resulting report.
Deitz and Tucker had been seeking access to the report for months before resorting to a lawsuit. The suit is just one part of their overall effort to find answers in the wake of their sister’s death.
“In the wake of our sister’s death, we hired our own private investigator,” Tucker said. “He discovered discrepancies between the official police account of what happened the night Donna died and what actually happened. We don’t know if these kinds of discrepancies were unusual, or whether it was a routine practice of the police department at that time. We’ve brought a public records lawsuit in order to shed light on the issue, as sunshine is the best disinfectant. This case is purely about the public’s right to have access to these kinds of investigations.”
CLF is teaming up with Charlotte-based attorneys Christian Ayers and Brett Dressler. Ayers typically focuses his practice on workers’ compensation.
“We generally don’t get involved in political matters, and we certainly don’t see eye-to-eye with the Civitas Institute on every issue,” Ayers said. “But governmental transparency is fundamental. If these kinds of coalitions can increase the public’s access to records, then we’re happy to help.”
The case against Belmont is very similar to a 2008 case filed against the City of Greensboro. There, a Guilford County Superior Court judge ordered Greensboro to produce a redacted copy of a third-party investigation into its police department.
“We see the Greensboro case as the minimum benchmark for what we can achieve,” Engstrom said. “Ultimately, the goal is to obtain a judicial ruling that these sorts of third-party investigations are public records in their entirety.”
The Center for Law and Freedom is a nonprofit public interest law firm housed within the Civitas Institute, provides free legal representation to North Carolinians facing difficult legal and policy challenges. The Center is one part of the Civitas Institute’s overall goal to implement conservative policy solutions for the benefit of all North Carolinians.