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Police in Virginia can no longer keep all their reports secret forever, thanks to a new law
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Police in Virginia can no longer keep all their reports secret forever, thanks to a new law

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Jason Nixon

Jason Nixon, a father of three daughters under the age of 13 who lost his wife Kate during the mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center in May, is shown in this Oct. 2, 2019 file photo.

Virginians will have a right to see many old police investigative files for the first time now that Gov. Ralph Northam has signed a bill into law changing the state’s public records law.

The new law will force police and sheriffs to release records of investigations that no longer are ongoing. It also will give families even greater access to records about relatives who’ve been killed, an issue that gained prominence when the Virginia Beach Police Department refused to release records to the families of those killed in the May 31, 2019, mass shooting at the city’s Municipal Center.

House Bill 2004, sponsored by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, passed through the Democratic-controlled General Assembly in late February, largely along party lines. It cleared the House 55-44, with one Republican joining Democrats, and passed the Senate 23-15, with two Republicans voting for it. No Democrat in either chamber voted against it.

Northam, a Democrat, signed the bill Wednesday, the last day possible, with little fanfare. Unlike with other bills he’s acted on — ones abolishing the death penalty and legalizing marijuana possession — there was no public ceremony or press release.

The new law, which takes effect July 1, could begin to end state law enforcement agencies’ longstanding practice of shielding nearly all their files from the public — whether they are incident reports from the past week or case files that haven’t been looked at in decades.

Though the Virginia Freedom of Information Act currently allows police, prosecutors and sheriff’s offices statewide to release such files, the departments almost always say no to all such requests as a matter of policy.

Proponents say making the files public will allow outside organizations to examine past cases independently, and allow families to get closure in death cases. Those against the change say the police investigative files contain sensitive information — including evidence from witnesses and information about other crimes — that must be protected.

The new law will continue to allow law enforcement agencies to withhold such information if doing so would interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation “in a particularly identifiable manner,” would be “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” or would endanger anyone’s physical safety.

The legislation is similar to what Hurst introduced during last year’s special session. After clearing the House, that bill died in the Senate when a committee voted for further study.

That came after a hearing in which Albemarle County’s top prosecutor, Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley, cited a series of problems — some “worthy of great concern” — with opening the files to the public. He cited concerns over the release of everything from mental health evaluations to witness statements.

“I believe that this bill could be and should be reworked,” he said, to allow for “a targeted expansion” to give certain groups — such as those working on a defendant’s innocence claims — access to the files.

Earlier in that online hearing, relatives of two victims of the 2019 Virginia Beach massacre spoke passionately for the bill, saying the city’s police have unfairly denied them access to files regarding their family members even though the shooter is dead.

“Why are they keeping that stuff?” asked Jason Nixon, the widower of Kate Nixon of evidence that included journals kept by his wife that became part of a police file. “It’s my information ... It’s my property, but I’m not allowed to have them. I know I sound kind of angry, but I am angry. And I think it’s wrong.”

The bill’s proponents — including Hurst, the Innocence Project and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government — said there were enough protections in place for privacy and ongoing investigations.

Law enforcement groups were strongly against that proposal, citing concerns over both privacy and future prosecutions.

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