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Albemarle police never turned over any records in FOIA request at center of legislative debate

One of the chief elements in debate over a bill that would close off inactive police files to the public is a November media request to Albemarle County police for records about Jesse Matthew, who pleaded guilty in 2016 to killing college students Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington.

The parents of both victims testified in favor of the legislation, saying the release of additional records would further traumatize their families.

But neither Albemarle police nor any lawmaker have answered key questions: Is existing law so weak that it would allow sensitive records to be released to a media company, and were any records actually released?

The answer — according to records obtained Wednesday by the Richmond Times-Dispatch under FOIA — is no records were released. The requestor dropped the issue after Albemarle County police wrote it would cost $76,743.97 to provide the files, according to records Albemarle police provided The Times-Dispatch in response to a FOIA request about the November FOIA request.

The November request for the Matthew case file was made by a representative of Arrow Media, a television production company, for a feature on the Investigation Discovery documentary show “See No Evil,” a true crime series.

The request asked for police reports, interviews, crime-scene photos, and video and photos from any search warrants carried out. The request was respectful and said the show would highlight law enforcement’s important work on the case.

Alison Wood — FOIA specialist with Albemarle police — gave the requestor an initial cost estimate of $28,396.36, writing that costs would likely be higher, but that the company would need to pay the initial amount to proceed. (FOIA allows government agencies to charge for the actual cost of fulfilling a request).

The requestor then replied that the company didn’t have the budget for that much and modified the request. Wood responded on Dec. 13 that the new estimate was $76,743.97. The cost estimate was for officials to review the materials for redactions.

Current law prevents police from releasing photos of a victim in an inactive file and allows them to withhold any record in an inactive file in which release would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Bryson Johnson — the representative who made the FOIA request for Arrow Media — didn’t respond back to police. Reached by phone Wednesday, Johnson said the company dropped it.

“The production company I was working for just said that estimate was too high and decided not to go through with it,” he said.

After seeing the correspondence, Megan Rhyne, executive director of the nonprofit Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said it illustrates that there is no need for the legislature to pass House Bill 734 from Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle.

“After seeing this back and forth, I’m unclear how existing law is so inadequate that it must be drastically rolled back, as HB734 proposes to do,” she said.

The legislation would allow the immediate families of homicide victims and certain lawyers to access files in closed police investigations, but close off those files to the press and general public.

The bill is in conference committee, which doesn’t hold hearings — it’s a small group of lawmakers who iron out details in private with feedback from interested groups.

Previous Times-Dispatch reporting on the bill explained how debate over it was riddled with misinformation and how some lawmakers acknowledged misunderstanding current law, mistakenly believing gruesome photos could be released when they cannot.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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