CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Kanawha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey will have to look again at requests from the Charleston Gazette for information about internal investigations focused on members of State Police, the largest law enforcement agency in West Virginia.
On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court reversed a 2012 ruling from Judge Bailey that found none of the information the Gazette was seeking, through Freedom of Information Act requests, was subject to disclosure partly because of both the invasion of privacy exemption and the law enforcement exemption for ongoing investigations.
“The dissemination of public information by the press is an important cornerstone of a vivacious democracy,” Justice Margaret Workman wrote in the 54-page long opinion on the case of the Charleston Gazette vs. Col. Jay Smithers, State Police Superintendent, which was first filed in 2010.
“The press has a vital role in disseminating to the public the type of information at issue in this case,” the opinion said.
When allegations of abuse arise in other agencies, State Police investigates. When allegations arise within State Police, State Police investigates. Critics have long argued against such a conflict.
When a FOIA request is made about an internal investigation focused on the actions of a State Police trooper working in that capacity, “such information is subject to release to the public only after completion of the investigation or inquiry and a determination is made as to whether disciplinary action is authorized by the Superintendent,” the Court ruled.
Those with the Gazette will now have to specifically request the documents they’re seeking and Judge Bailey will review those requests, outside of the public’s view, to determine what will be released using, as a guideline, the Supreme Court’s decision.
As of Tuesday evening, State Police had not commented publicly on the decision.