- A media coalition is urging the N.C. Supreme Court to consolidate two appeals related to access to law enforcement recordings.
- In one case, media outlets seek access to recordings of a drunk driving traffic stop involving two Duke University basketball players. In the other case, media organizations seek recordings linked to the officer-involved shooting death of Andrew Brown in Elizabeth City.
- In both cases, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that media outlets failed to follow the proper procedure to gain access to the requested recordings.
A media coalition is urging the N.C. Supreme Court to take up a case dealing with access to police recordings. The case stems from a 2021 drunk driving stop in Orange County involving two Duke University basketball players.
The media outlets hope to pair that case with a separate complaint involving recordings of a fatal 2021 police-related shooting in Elizabeth City.
In both instances, the N.C, Court of Appeals rejected media requests for access to law enforcement recordings. Appellate judges ruled that the media outlets failed to follow the proper procedure.
“Both appeals involve a common issue of law, namely whether law enforcement officials and any other persons seeking release of law enforcement recordings pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(g) must file ‘an ordinary civil action’ as opposed to an action guided by the … forms provided by the Judicial Branch via the Administrative Office of the Courts,” wrote attorneys seeking Tuesday to consolidate the two appeals.
The state law § 132-1.4A(g) spells out details for releasing recordings made by law enforcement agencies in North Carolina.
“Both petitions urgently ask this Court to untangle the jurisprudential morass described in the Coalition’s petitions and caused by (1) the General Assembly’s inartful statutory drafting; (2) the entry of conflicting and irreconcilable rulings in the same proceeding by two Superior Court judges, one of whom overruled the other; and (3) the rejection, by the trial court and the Court of Appeals, of the prescribed form(s) issued by the AOC and relied upon in these and many other cases by both sets of Petitioners, members of the public, law enforcement entities, and the lower courts,” media lawyers wrote.
“Consolidation of the two overlapping Petitions for Discretionary Review, … and of their corresponding appeals, would best serve the interests of judicial economy and efficiency, the clarification of North Carolina jurisprudence with respect to an important body of law, and the consistent resolution of multiple appeals addressed to the same issue of first impression,” according to the media outlets’ motion.
As lawyers urged the state’s highest court to combine the two cases, they also filed a petition focusing on the Duke basketball DWI dispute.
A November 2021 traffic stop eventually led to a July 2022 guilty plea of driving while impaired from Michael Savarino, a Duke basketball player and the grandson of Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Savarino’s passenger and Duke teammate, star player Paolo Banchero, initially faced a charge of aiding and abetting DWI. That charge was dismissed the day after Savarino’s DWI plea.
A group of media outlets — including the News and Observer, WRAL, WTVD, and WNCN — filed paperwork in December 2021, seeking the “release of all body cam footage, dashboard camera recordings, cell phone recordings, or any other recordings related to this incident,” according to an Appeals Court opinion in the case.
Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour issued a January 2022 order approving release of the recordings. But Savarino’s attorney appealed.
A unanimous Appeals Court panel ruled against the media outlets in April. Chief Judge Donna Stroud cited as precedent the court’s two-month-old ruling in the Elizabeth City case. That dispute stemmed from media outlets’ attempts to secure video recordings related to the April 2021 officer-involved shooting death of Andrew Brown.
In both cases, media outlets used a court-provided form to seek access to the recordings. Appellate judges ruled that the media outlets should have filed civil suits instead.
“To resolve the jurisprudential chaos created by the General Assembly, the trial court, and the Court of Appeals, this [Supreme] Court is called upon to construe amendments to the Public Records Act in which the General Assembly attempted to broaden, clarify, and expedite access to law enforcement recordings of events – including those in which a person died or suffered serious bodily injuries at the hands of law enforcement officers,” media lawyers wrote.
Media outlets argue that the two recent Appeals Court decisions have generated confusion for all parties dealing with law enforcement recordings.
“[T]he AOC’s form-driven process for seeking release pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat.§ 132-1.4A(g) has been used hundreds of times since 2016,” the media brief noted. “[C]onsequently, the Court of Appeals’ ruling has perpetuated significant confusion and uncertainty for law enforcement, the courts, and the public (including the members of the Media Coalition).”
“The Media Coalition respectfully requests that this Honorable Court resolve the uncertainty and confusion resulting from the Court of Appeals’ decisions by granting this Petition for Discretionary Review and exercising its general supervisory authority to promote the expeditious administration of justice regarding the release of law enforcement recordings.”
There is no deadline for the state Supreme Court to decide whether to take either case. Justices face no deadline to decide whether to consolidate the appeals.