Image Credit: Jack Johnson / Twitter
The Tennessee Conservative [By Jason Vaughn] –
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson [R-Franklin-District 27] has filed legislation to close public records of death investigations if the death is ruled to be not the result of a crime.
Senate Bill 0009 (SB0009), as introduced, states that medical records, law enforcement investigative reports, 911 call recordings, photographs, and any other recordings related to a death are not public records if the investigating law enforcement agency determines that the death was not the result of a crime; makes confidential any body camera footage that includes the interior of a private residence recorded due to investigation of a death, which the law enforcement agency determined not to be the result of a crime. – Amends TCA Title 10 and Title 38.
The Tennessee Lookout reports that Johnson likely filed the bill in response to concerns raised by the family of country music legend Naomi Judd, who allegedly committed suicide in April of this year.
The Judd family filed a complaint against the Williamson County Sheriff’s office in order to stop the release of information obtained from the investigation of Naomi’s death. Naomi’s daughter, Ashley Judd, publicly stated that her mother had committed suicide.
Following the suit filed by the Judd family, they then took action against journalists who filed open records requests. The lawsuit against journalists was voluntarily dismissed by the family on Monday.
Johnson’s legislation has wrought some opposition by open records advocates who state that the bill will further limit the public’s right to have critical information related to investigations.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, stated that the language of the bill is quite broad and that, as written, it would close access to police files that have traditionally been open after a case has been closed.
Fisher points out that those files do not only provide accountability for how law enforcement conducts investigations but also are invaluable in determining whether an officer used excessive force on individuals who suffered severe injuries or death when engaged by officers.
If the legislation is passed, Fisher states that once the police determine that no crime was committed, any information concerning the incident would be forever closed to the public.
Because all of the records would lawfully be confidential if the bill is passed, there would be no second checks in situations where the police investigate one of their own to determine whether they are innocent, she points out.
Public access to the records is also useful when determining whether officers followed procedure and responded to incidents properly.
Fisher states that Tennessee has managed to “co-exist” with the open records law for decades and that it has proven very useful for journalists and the general public.
Ashley Judd wrote an opinion column for the New York Times entitled The Right to Keep Private Pain Private, published on August 31st, in which she stated that the loss her family feels from her mother’s death would be made worse should the details be made public through the use of Tennessee’s open records law.
Judd wrote, “The raw details are used only to feed a craven gossip economy, and as we cannot count on basic human decency, we need laws that will compel that restraint.”
About the Author: Jason Vaughn, Media Coordinator for The Tennessee Conservative ~ Jason previously worked for a legacy publishing company based in Crossville, TN in a variety of roles through his career. Most recently, he served as Deputy Director for their flagship publication. Prior, he was a freelance journalist writing articles that appeared in the Herald Citizen, the Crossville Chronicle and The Oracle among others. He graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a Bachelor’s in English-Journalism, with minors in Broadcast Journalism and History. Contact Jason at news@TennesseeConservativeNews.com