AN ORGANIZATIONAL MATTER
One of many responsibilities of the Office of Sheriff in Georgia is to operate a jail. A “full service” Sheriff’s Office, like the one in Newton County, also provides primary law enforcement within unincorporated areas of the county. The duties, as it pertains to the operation of the jail, as enumerated in OCGA 15-16-10 are clear: confine, feed, and care for all persons charged with the violation of any ordinances of such counties in the same manner as persons charged with an indictable offense.
An individual arrested in Newton County, irrespective of the arresting agency, is taken to the Newton County Detention Center for booking and housing.
PRIMARY LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES IN NEWTON COUNTY
Newton County Sheriff’s Office
Covington Police Department
Oxford Police Department
Porterdale Police Department
OTHER LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENICES THAT OPERATE WITHIN NEWTON COUNTY
Georgia State Patrol
Georgia Bureau of Investigation
Georgia Department of Insurance
Georgia Department of Revenue
Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Georgia Department of Driver Services
Georgia Secretary of State’s Office
Motor Carrier Compliance Division
Multiple Federal Agencies
ONLINE POLICE BLOTTER
According to a recent online police blotter article, a Newton County resident was arrested and charged with disobeying a traffic control device, DUI-alcohol and fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer. Along with the individual’s full name, age, address, and date of arrest, the newspaper provided the name of the arresting agency – the Newton County Sheriff’s Office.
In the same article, it shows another Newton County resident was arrested and charged with DUI-alcohol and reckless driving. Again, the individual’s full name, age, address, and date of arrest was published. The name of arresting agency – the Covington Police Department - was provided.
LAW ENFORCEMENT/MEDIA REPORTS
Whenever a law enforcement agency files a report, it becomes a matter of public record.
A common practice for Newton County law enforcement is to provide a consolidated “report” for the media that summarizes a basic who, what, when, where, why, and how an arrest was affected. These reports are used for covering stories, investigative journalism, and detailing police blotter.
A PUBLIC RECORD IN GEORGIA DEFINED – OCGA 50-18-70 (a)
(a) All documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, computer based or generated information, or similar material prepared and maintained or received in the course of the operation of a public office or agency.
"Public record" shall also mean such items received or maintained by a private person or entity on behalf of a public office or agency which are not otherwise subject to protection from disclosure; however, this Code section shall be construed to disallow an agency's placing or causing such items to be placed in the hands of a private person or entity for the purpose of avoiding disclosure. Records received or maintained by a private person, firm, corporation, or other private entity in the performance of a service or function for or on behalf of an agency, a public agency, or a public office shall be subject to disclosure to the same extent that such records would be subject to disclosure if received or maintained by such agency, public agency, or public office. As used in this article, the term "agency" or "public agency" or "public office" shall have the same meaning and application as provided for in the definition of the term "agency" in paragraph (1) of subsection (a) of Code Section 50-14-1 and shall additionally include any association, corporation, or other similar organization which: (1) has a membership or ownership body composed primarily of counties, municipal corporations, or school districts of this state or their officers or any combination thereof; and (2) derives a substantial portion of its general operating budget from payments from such political subdivisions.
The Newton County Sheriff’s Office maintains a publicly accessible website: www.newtonsheriffga.org. It’s convenient and easy to navigate. On the Home Page there is a Quick Links bar. It directs a user to Inmate Information. Current and former inmates can be queried. Only a first and last name is needed to look for a current inmate. If searching for a former inmate - a search by booking date and a select date range option exists – or the full name search choice is available.
This publicly accessible information – which can include the individual’s full name, age, address, date of arrest, and name of the arresting agency - is frequently used by local media outlets while preparing their articles. It is also open for a private citizen to use.
A current inmate query was conducted on both Newton County residents listed as arrestees published in the online article. It was determined they were not currently housed at the Newton County Detention Center.
A previous inmate query was conducted on both arrestees using all the available information provided in the online article. This search function was not operating properly. A decision was made to only confirm the name of the arresting agency. It was attempted by phone. Note: this information was published online and provided to the newspaper by the arresting agencies in question.
PHONE CALL 1 – NEWTON COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
It was anything but a standard phone call placed to the Newton County Sheriff’s Office. The process of confirming the name of the arresting agency should be easy. The details were published online and a matter of public record.
The Newton County Sheriff’s Office main number is: 678-625-1400.
RR: Good morning. I am having trouble with your website and need to confirm the name of the arresting agency of an inmate. I believe the arrestee is already released and was arrested by the Sheriff’s Office.
NCSO Employee: Who are you with, sir?
RR: What do you mean?
NCSO Employee: What agency are you with?
RR: I’m not with an agency. I’m a private citizen.
NCSO Employee: Why do you need that information?
RR: It was published online and made public by a local newspaper and I would like to confirm if the arresting agency listed in the report is correct?
NCSO Employee: I can’t give you that information, sir.
NCSO Employee: Once an inmate is released from our facility, I am not allowed to disclose that type of information.
NCSO Employee: Have you filed an Open Records Request?
RR: I have not.
NCSO Employee: Then I can’t give you that information, sir.
RR: Just so I’m clear. Your publicly accessible website allows for anyone – to include a private citizen - to search for current and former inmates.
NCSO Employee: Yes.
RR: And that information – if available - would list the name of the arresting agency?
NCSO Employee: Yes, sir.
NCSO Employee: Were you involved in the arrest?
NCSO Employee: Are you listed in the report?
NCSO Employee: Are you related to the inmate?
NCSO Employee: Why do you need that information.
RR: I am not asking for a copy of the report. As a private citizen, I wanted to confirm the name of the arresting agency. That’s all. Normally, I would be able to access that information on your website. However, the previous inmate search option is not functioning properly, which is why I called.
NCSO Employee: Without an Open Records Request, I cannot give you that information, sir.
PHONE CALL 2 – COVINGTON POLICE DEPARTMENT
Since any individual arrested by the Covington Police Department is taken to the Newton County Detention Center for booking and housing, and the Sheriff’s Office website option that allows for the search of a former inmate was not functioning properly, a call was placed to the Covington Police Department. Again, the process of confirming the arresting agency should be easy. The details were published online and a matter of public record.
The Covington Police Department’s main number is: 770-786-7605.
RR: I need to confirm the name of the arresting agency of a former inmate housed at the Newton County Sheriff’s Office. I read about the arrest online in a local police blotter article. It lists the Covington Police Department as the arresting agency. The website maintained by the Sheriff’s Office is not operating properly. I called to confirm that information.
CPD Employee: Do you have the inmate’s name?
RR: I do.
CPD Employee: Who are you with?
RR: I’m not with anyone. I’m a private citizen.
CPD Employee: Why do you need that information?
RR: I want to confirm if the information published in the online report is correct?
CPD Employee: Are you mentioned in the report or involved in the incident?
RR: No, I’m not.
CPD Employee: If you’re not mentioned in the report or involved in the incident, I cannot release that information to you.
CPD Employee: Just like I can’t give a copy of a report to someone who is not involved in an incident. I can’t release that type of information to you.
CPD Employee: Because you are not listed in the report.
RR: I called over to the Sheriff’s Office and was told that type of information could not be released either. At least not without an Open Record’s Request. Just to be clear. I am not wanting a copy of a report. I want to confirm if the information published online in a publicly accessible police blotter article is correct. It lists the Covington Police Department as the arresting agency.
CPD Employee: I’m going to side with the Sheriff’s Office and not release that type of information to you.
RR: I understand. Thank you.
OCGA 50-18-70 (b)
(b) All public records of an agency as defined in subsection (a) of this Code section, except those which by order of a court of this state or by law are prohibited or specifically exempted from being open to inspection by the general public, shall be open for a personal inspection by any citizen of this state at a reasonable time and place; and those in charge of such records shall not refuse this privilege to any citizen.
OCGA 50-18-70 (g)
(g) At the request of the person, firm, corporation, or other entity requesting such records, records maintained by computer shall be made available where practicable by electronic means, including Internet access, subject to reasonable security restrictions preventing access to non-requested or non-available records.
A copy of an agency report was not requested. The only information desired – which came from a publicly accessible news article published online – was confirmation from the listed arresting agency, whether they made the arrest. That’s it.
Both agencies refused cooperation.
A SAD REALITY
When a citizen calls and asks a government agency to verify the authenticity of information published in an online news article - and is denied that opportunity - it confirms a sad reality; we are at a point where our government has more to lose than gain by being transparent.
Both government entities, once they realized a citizen was requesting information and not an agency, questioned a citizen’s need for access to facts. Instead of transparency they chose darkness.
- Ryan Ralston