The Civitas Institute Center for Law and Freedom is representing a North Carolina family in their public records lawsuit against the City of Belmont. At issue is whether a third-party, taxpayer-funded investigation is a public record. The Charlotte Observer reports:
The Civitas Institute is suing the city of Belmont, saying it has refused to release the results of an investigation into the city’s police department after a 2012 chase that left two people dead.
The complaint was filed in Gaston County court on Friday on behalf of Dan Deitz and Ellen Deitz, whose sister, Donna, was killed by a driver fleeing Belmont police in February 2012, according to the institute, a nonprofit conservative think tank based in Raleigh…
…Belmont police changed their chase policy as a result of the deaths, and the city launched an investigation into the department.
Earlier this year, the Deitzes filed a public records request with the city asking to see the results of the investigation, hoping it would shed light on the death of their sister, according to the Civitas Institute’s lawsuit.
The city denied the request, saying N.C. statutes prevent Belmont from releasing information about personnel records, which are contained in the investigation.
It's natural for media outlets such as the Charlotte Observer, NBC Charlotte, and the Gaston Gazette to focus on the deadly car crash in 2012 as a central part of this story. And indeed, the lawsuit alleges that there is likely information in the investigative report related to that night. But in fact, this lawsuit is primarily about public records and transparency. The Sunshine Center of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition sheds some light on the legal issues at the center of this case:
Last year Belmont hired U.S. ISS Agency, a private investigation firm, to conduct an investigation into complaints about the police department. Separately Deitz and Tucker hired a private investigator to look into their sister's death. The private investigator requested a copy of U.S. ISS Agency's report on the police department under the Public Records Law, according to the complaint filed in court. The city denied access to the report claiming it is exempt under the municipal personnel statute.
The Civitas Institute Center for Law and Freedom then stepped in and requested the same documents on behalf of Deitz and Tucker, noting that in News & Observer v. Poole, under a similar statute, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that information gathered by a third-party investigator would not be considered part of a personnel record unless it was first gathered by the government agency.
The lawsuit filed Friday is asking the court to require the city to provide a copy of the investigative report.