A state law enforcement agency has reduced fees news organizations must pay for copies of vehicle accident reports after an official in the governor's office said the fees didn't comply with South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act. Until May 16, the Department of Public Safety charged $100 for each section of accident reports produced by a special unit, the Multi-disciplinary Accident Investigation Team. The team uses technology to analyze and reconstruct complex vehicle crashes.
The team investigated a March 28 accident on Dillon Road that killed two Hilton Head Island High School seniors and injured two other students. The resulting accident report had five sections, and when The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette asked for a copy, a Department of Public Safety official said the fee would be $500 -- $100 for each section.
The Freedom of Information Act allows government agencies in South Carolina to charge no more than the actual cost of copying documents. The law also states that charges can be reduced if disseminating the information "can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public."
However, the department said it could charge fees higher than the actual copying costs because it needed the money.
"The training and equipment required to reconstruct these scenes are extensive and go beyond our normal scope of training," department spokeswoman Sherri Iocabelli said in an email. "Therefore, the fees are structured to allow us to recoup some of those costs to continue to provide this specialized service in our collision investigations."
Even if the newspaper personnel themselves copied or scanned the five sections of the report, the fee would still be $500, Iocabelli said. Insurance companies and some media organizations have willingly paid the $100-per-section fee for several years, she said.
The newspapers took the issue to the governor's office, which oversees the Department of Public Safety.
A spokesman there, Doug Mayer, readily acknowledged that fees for copies of public records can't be tied to generating revenue. He added that Gov. Nikki Haley's administration was "all about transparency," and the fees the Department of Public Safety wanted to charge obstructed transparency.
Later that afternoon, Leroy Smith, director of the public safety department, issued a memo dropping the charge for the reports to $25 per section -- $75 less than before.
"Given the often serious nature of incidents investigated by MAIT, I believe the media outlets are in a position to further the public's understanding of the work performed by this particular group of dedicated agency professionals . . . ," Smith's memo stated.