There should be no such thing as ‘secret plaintiff’

A court should not even consider giving an anonymous plaintiff standing to stop the flow of public information.

Yet a Beaufort County judge allowed it in a case involving the conduct of a police officer.

The public has every right to know about that conduct, and how alleged transgressions are handled by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.

But getting that information has been like moving heaven and earth, and in the process the entire criminal justice system has needlessly taken a black eye.

A routine request by this newspaper for public documents on the internal investigation turned into a legal battle with the court sadly enabling the secrecy.

Sheriff P.J. Tanner had no problem releasing the public document. Neither did the administration of Beaufort County, which funds the sheriff’s office.

But a third party, whose name was kept from the public, was successful, at least temporarily, in blocking the release of documents the government had deemed as public record. That should not happen.

Beaufort County Special Circuit Court Judge Marvin Dukes allowed an anonymous person, who had no standing in this routine flow of public information, to keep the report out of the public eye.

By granting that anonymity, and by granting the release only of a heavily redacted version of the internal investigation report, the rights of the public were sacrificed for the personal benefit of one anonymous person.

The judge based his decision on a broad interpretation of how private parties can seek relief from the tenets of the Freedom of Information Act. But there should be no special, personal exemptions to public disclosure of public documents regarding public officials.

It appears to the layman to be favoritism. It should not matter what a person’s job or community standing is, or what kind of legal representation a person can afford. Justice must be blind. There simply cannot be exceptions. All courthouses and police departments are filled with public documents that someone, somewhere would prefer to be private. Accusations made in civil lawsuits, or on arrest reports, may turn out not to even be true, but they are public because that is a foundation of justice in America.

The investigative report was spurred by allegations made by Hilton Head Island residents Chris O’Nan and Karen Anderson that a deputy used his police vehicle and equipment to facilitate “an adulterous relationship” and abused his position by running a license plate check on an individual without cause. The deputy resigned when confronted with the allegations.

Three complete pages of the report were not released, and all references to the person with whom the deputy is accused of having a relationship were redacted. The accusations included that the deputy is alleged to have been seen entering the unnamed person’s place of employment “after midnight, where they would stay for over an hour at times.” That work location also was redacted.

On a re-hearing this week, Judge Dukes reversed himself and ruled that the public is entitled to an unredacted copy of the internal investigation. That is, of course, true. But we disagree with his reasoning. He said it was because his initial ruling became moot when a family court judge declined to seal family court records that contained the same allegations.

Public information must always be open to the public simply because it is public information.