The NC General Assembly The NC General Assembly

Law passed nearly unanimously with little discussion in the early morning hours last week at the NC General Assembly.

A little more than a month after George Floyd’s death, a NC bill would allow officials to keep records of police custody deaths out of the public eye.

The controversial move was included in Senate Bill 168, which was requested by the Department of Health and Human Services. And it passed the House and Senate nearly unanimously with little-to-no discussion, WBTV reported, even though it has significant implications.

Currently under North Carolina law, deaths that occur in law enforcement custody, or in prisons or jails, are classified as unnatural or unexpected deaths, and they must be reported to a county medical examiner. If the county official opens an investigation, the records are then passed onto the chief medical examiner.

Law enforcement records are exempt from public records laws, but once they are in the chief medical examiner’s hands, they become public.

The approved bill would keep those records confidential even after the medical examiner gets them.

Lawmakers also said that the DHHS requested the provision in order to “clarify existing authority.”

“[This] bill…will greatly restrict access to death investigation records, including in-custody deaths,” WBTV reporter Nick Ochsner tweeted.

At least one state lawmaker, Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, agreed.

“I think [Ochsner] got this story right,” Jackson wrote. “The bill had a lot of important provisions in it – including block grant funding for various social services – but we need to fix this one.”

If signed into law, SB 168 would also raise concerns about access to police body cam footage, car and surveillance video. Current state law makes these videos available with a court order, but if police claim those records are part of death investigations, public access could be blocked under the new law.

North Carolina Chief Medical Examiner Michelle Aurelius told WBTV that the bill merely streamlines the record-sharing process.

“There have been barriers in the middle of the night to get information on the front lines for those who are working to try to determine cause and manner of death,” Aurelius said.

Aurelius could not cite a specific case where that happened.

Josh Dobson, a McDowell County Republican, crafted some of the bill’s language. He offered that the measure closes a loophole in the present process by clarifying that once records are classified confidential; they will remain so.

“It just streamlines what is confidential,” Dobson claimed. But the editorial board for NC’s McClatchy papers wrote Monday that it’s a loophole that doesn’t need fixing.

“The public should know what’s happening in prisons and jails,” the board wrote. “(A)nd law enforcement should not be able to keep records involving custody deaths private.”