Citing a “substantial failure to comply” with state public records law, Judge John W. Smith sided in civil superior court Monday with a coalition of four media outlets, including The News Reporter, that had filed a lawsuit against Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene over the release of criminal records.
“Sheriff Jody Greene has and will continue to encourage transparency with the public, the media, and particularly the residents of Columbus County,” according to a statement issued Tuesday by sheriff’s office spokesperson Michele Tatum.
“After Judge Smith’s plainspoken ruling, I expect we’ll be able to work with the sheriff’s office to make sure reports are provided in a full and timely manner,” said The News Reporter Publisher Les High. “It’s too bad this had to go to court, but The News Reporter will always vigorously defend the public’s right to open meetings and public records.”
The lawsuit cited a Sept. 10, 2020, memo from Greene which stated that, “information pertaining to open criminal investigations will not be released prior to the conclusion of the investigation and/or the arrest of all suspects involved.” Additionally, the plaintiffs noted that the sheriff’s office withheld all incident reports from Sept. 4, 2020, until Oct. 6, 2020.
Smith said it was “crystal clear” that the sheriff’s office had not complied with the law and that open incident reports were covered by the state’s public records statute.