Transparency News, 10/22/20


 October 22, 2020
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state & local news stories
Police in Virginia almost never release case files and body camera footage, even long after their investigations have concluded. A bill aimed at changing that failed during the special legislative session, which concluded last week. But lawmakers are already working to revise the legislation in response to concerns raised by police about graphic crime scene photos and victim privacy. In most states and at the federal level, such records are open and accessible to the public with a handful of exceptions, according to the Innocence Project, which works to overturn wrongful convictions and argues access to a defendant’s full case files is essential to that work. Another 14 states presume those records aren’t public. The broad exemption, which police can apply to most records in their possession, gives local and state departments the ability to shield all but the most basic information about how they respond to and investigate crimes from public disclosure. And as body cameras have proliferated, it’s also been routinely used to block the release of the footage they generate, including in cases where they’re not part of an ongoing investigation and never were.
Virginia Mercury

Gov. Ralph Northam has signed more than a dozen new laws, including ones ensuring that information about COVID-19 outbreaks is published for public view and schools post their plans for mitigating the spread of the virus. Accessing information about outbreaks was especially challenging at the beginning of the pandemic. At first, Northam and his advisers refused to identify the names of nursing homes and assisted living facilities where there were outbreaks, citing the state code. As the virus spread in those facilities and public criticism grew, the administration reversed its decision and identified facilities with outbreaks. Northam signed a bill into law that says medical care facilities, residential or day programs, facilities operated by the commonwealth, schools and summer camps would have to report an outbreak of a communicable disease. The health department would publish that information for public review as long as that would not violate someone’s medical privacy.
The Roanoke Times

The Virginia Supreme Court issued an opinion today (Oct. 22) on the Automated License Plate Recognition system used by the Fairfax Police Department. The court ruled the ALPR system is not an "information system" under the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act, which, if it was, would have limited the agency's ability to use and disseminate the license plate numbers collected by the system. 
(the case was prompted by the records the plaintiff got back in response to a FOIA request for ALPR data on his vehicle)
Read the opinion


editorials & columns
FIVE OF SEVEN new complaints lodged against the Virginia Parole Board were substantiated earlier this month by the Office of State Inspector General Michael Westfall, which found that the VPB once again violated state law and its own policies and procedures by releasing inmates without first notifying prosecutors, victims and their families. But the IG’s Oct. 6 summary was also heavily redacted, and the “watchdog” claimed that VPB is exempt from publicly releasing information about these cases under the commonwealth’s open records law. The earlier lack of transparency prompted a 29–10 vote by bipartisan members of the state Senate that would have required all individual votes by VPB members to be deemed “public records open to inspection and available for release, on a monthly basis,” and subject to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. But the bill, which was patroned by Sen. David Suetterlein, R–Roanoke, was tabled on Sept. 22 in the House Courts of Justice Committee before the second redacted OIG report was released. The Oct. 6 summary provided delegates with yet another example, if they needed one, of just why this legislation was long overdue.
The Free Lance-Star