NC Supreme Court Holds that Media Entities May Seek Access to Law Enforcement Recordings by Filing a Petition

In March 2021, several news organizations filed a petition in Alamance County Superior Court seeking the release of law enforcement recordings of an “I Am Change” march that took place in Graham, North Carolina in October 2020. Marchers and law enforcement had clashed, and several people were arrested. The superior court held a hearing and ultimately ordered all of the requested recordings released without redaction.

After assessing the eight statutory considerations, the superior court explained that even though the release of the recordings would reveal highly sensitive and personal information that could harm a person’s reputation or safety, it did “not have the authority to [c]ensor this information absent a legitimate or compelling [] state interest to do so.”  In re The McClatchy Co., No. 29A23, ___ N.C. ___ (May 23, 2024). The court noted that it gave “great weight to transparency and public accountability with regard to police action” and that failure to release the information could “undermine the public interest and confidence in the administration of justice.” Id. The Graham Police Department (GPD) appealed.

The Court of Appeals, over a dissent, vacated the release order and remanded for additional findings of fact. The petitioners appealed. On appeal, the GPD argued that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the petition because the media companies were required to file a civil action rather than a petition. See In re Custodial L. Enf’t Agency Recording, 288 N.C. App. 306, 311 (2023) (so holding).

The North Carolina Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Allen, rejected GPD’s contention that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the petitioners filed a petition instead of a complaint. The Court then proceeded to hold that the trial court misunderstood the scope of its authority in ordering release, explaining that a trial court granting such release may place any conditions or restrictions on the release that it deems appropriate.

This post will review G.S. 132-1.4A, the North Carolina Supreme Court’s opinion in In re The McClatchy Co., ___ N.C. ___ (May 2024) [hereinafter McClatchy], and will consider McClatchy’s import for those seeking and considering release.

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