The Aiken Department of Public Safety has suspended the release of even the most general details of crimes involving juvenile defendants while awaiting an opinion from the S.C. Attorney General, a move prompted by a local media outlet's request for information on an alleged sexual assault at Aiken Middle School. The action means the public may not even know when, where or if a crime occurred if it involves minors – potentially breaking state law under the Freedom of Information Act.
The City Solicitor and Aiken Public Safety are asking the Attorney General for clarity on Statute B of S.C. Code 63-19-2030, which states: “Law enforcement records of children must be kept separate from records of adults. Information identifying a child must not be open to public inspection, but the remainder of these records are public records.”
The entire code can be viewed by visiting http://www.scstatehouse.gov/code/t63c019.php.
A woman representing herself as an Aiken Middle School parent sent The Jail Report, a local newspaper featuring arrested individuals that also carries a large Facebook following, a private message on Facebook about an alleged sexual assault at the school a month ago, according to Greg Rickabaugh, publisher of The Jail Report.
An attorney for the S.C. Press association said on Thursday the city's actions clearly violate the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
Rickabaugh said he requested the incident report of the alleged assault from Aiken Public Safety and was told he needed to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the information.
“I told them, 'I don't expect the name of the suspect or name of the victim,'” he told the Aiken Standard. One week after filing the request, Rickabaugh said the department denied the request, saying it couldn't release information on juvenile defendants.
Aiken Public Safety said in a statement on Wednesday that the City solicitor has requested the opinion of the attorney general's office on the release of information involving minor defendants.
The statement refers to a section of South Carolina code regarding the release of law enforcement records involving juvenile defendants: S.C. Code, Section 63-19-2030.
That law, according to the statement, specifies that police records involving juveniles are confidential and therefore not subject to public inspection, even under FOIA.
The statement says the City and Public Safety understand the importance of FOIA and the public's “right to know,” but added that the legality of releasing information involving minor defendants “has come into question.” It goes on to say that there is no South Carolina case law or prior opinion from the attorney general that addresses these questions.
“Until the legality of the release of information involving minor defendants has been addressed, or we are ordered by the court to do so, we are suspending the public release of incident reports involving minor defendants,” the statement reads.
Lt. Jake Mahoney said The Jail Report requested information on “a case involving a minor defendant.” A minor, or juvenile, is anyone under the age of 17.
“Upon review by our legal staff, we wanted to make sure that we were legally allowed to release that information based on the confidentiality laws in the children's code,” he said. “ ... I can't comment on what specific case led to this inquiry.”
City Solicitor Paige Tiffany sent a letter to Attorney General Alan Wilson on Dec. 12 asking for an opinion.
“At this time, I am requesting an opinion as to whether an incident report involving a juvenile subject can be released if the identifying information is redacted or whether the incident report must be maintained confidentially in its entirety,” she wrote in the letter. “Further, may the Aiken Department of Public Safety even confirm or deny such a report has been made and, if so, if it resulted in an arrest?”
A spokesman for Wilson's office could only confirm they have received the report. Tiffany said it will take “a couple of weeks” for the attorney general's office to produce the opinion.
If the attorney general releases an opinion that incident reports involving juvenile defendants must remain public, Tiffany said it's likely the reports that have been kept locked would be redacted and placed in the incident books – a practice Public Safety already was doing until this particular incident.
“The City of Aiken supports the Freedom of Information Act under all circumstances,” she said. “We'd just like some air on releasing the information. But in this situation, with a statute especially that states violating incident law, there are criminal sanctions for violating juvenile law enforcement records.”
Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said Aiken Public Safety has taken “an incorrect position under the law” by suspending the release of the incident reports.
“All you can do is redact the information that the law allows you to redact,” he said, which includes blacking out the juvenile's name and anything that can identify a juvenile.
“They need to figure it out and release the information without the juvenile's name,” Bender said. “The only thing that's protected is the juvenile's name, not the fact that the event happened.”
The law says that the name of a juvenile involved in the court system may be withheld, and typically, the name of any sexual assault victim (regardless of age) is withheld, according to Bender. Still, the law doesn't say an entire record may be withheld.
“You're entitled to know the circumstances of the assault to the extent it doesn't identify the defendant or the victim,” he said. “You should be able to find out the day it happened, the place it happened and any investigation that's taking place.”
Mahoney emphasized the department's decision only pertains to public reports with juvenile defendants, and that the department still releases the information to school officials and victims as required by law. Additionally, incident reports involving adult defendants in which a juvenile is mentioned are still available for public inspection as long as all identifying information regarding the juvenile is redacted.
“We want to make sure that our actions we've been doing in the past are legal,” he said. “We understand the sensitivity and the importance of the public's right to know. If we're releasing information that we shouldn't, we could be held criminally liable.”
Chief Charles Barranco, director of Aiken Public Safety, declined to comment beyond what Mahoney said.
“We're not trying to say we believe the public doesn't have a right to know,” Barranco said. “We just want to make sure we have the right to give it to them.”
Calls were made to Mayor Fred Cavanaugh, which were not returned by press time, and to City Manager Richard Pierce, who deferred to Tiffany.
• Staff writers Maayan Schechter and Rob Novit and News Editor Haley Hughes contributed to this report.