Sheriff seeking legal opinion on release of crime reports

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he has asked the S.C. Attorney General for a legal opinion he hopes will end a disagreement between his office and The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet.

Tanner said he sent a letter Monday asking S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster if he believes South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act allows the Sheriff's Office to deny public access to incident reports on weekends and holidays.

"I read the statute one way, and I have other people read it and they read it one way and it appears that the exceptions to the law are on Saturday, Sunday and on holidays," Tanner said. "I want the attorney general to take a look at our policies and look at the law and tell me whether we need to modify these policies or if we're all right."

An attorney for the S.C. Press Association, to which the Gazette and Packet belong, said last week that FOI law requires government agencies to provide access to public records whenever a citizen appears in person and requests them during operating hours. Since the Sheriff's Office operates around the clock, it should not restrict access to reports on weekends or holidays, as has been the practice since Tanner put in place new procedures Nov. 3.

Tanner disagrees.

"I know that the press has a different interpretation and thinks we should be a 24/7 agency, but the administrative offices through which those reports are funneled is open five days a week," he said.

As a result of Tanner's policy, the Sheriff's Office withheld crime reports over the Thanksgiving weekend. Crime reports were not published for four days in the Packet and three days in the Gazette.