A bill that would open past police investigative files to the public sailed through the Virginia House of Delegates on Thursday.
Sponsored by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg and other lawmakers, the legislation to amend the state’s open records law passed on a 59-37 vote.
Though it was mostly a party line vote carried by Democrats, five Republicans crossed over to support the bill. It could come up for Senate hearings next week.
If it becomes law, the measure 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 last week or 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 if they want to, the departments typically say no to all such requests.
The bill says that “criminal investigative files” become public in Virginia when a court case is over. In cases that haven’t been prosecuted, the bill says, the files would become public three years after the incident occurred.
The legislation separately increases what police departments and sheriff’s agencies must release about more recent criminal incidents.
Proponents contend the changes will allow outside organizations to examine past cases independently, and allow families to get closure in death cases.
“We can’t do our basic work, we can’t investigate, without these files,” said Michelle Feldman, an official with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that works to overturn wrongful convictions.
“These files contain the critical information used to follow up on leads,” added Feldman, who’s been working to support the legislation. “After an investigation is completed, it really doesn’t make sense to withhold them.”
She said the bill would also allow the public to better examine police shootings, which she pointed out are typically investigated by the officers’ own agencies.
“If the public can’t get those records about what the investigation found, how are they ever going to have comfort that officers were justified in using force?” Feldman asked.
The bill would further allow relatives to learn more about what happened in particular cases, such as the families of those killed in the May 2019 shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.
“They can’t get closure because they are not getting the full truth and the full picture,” Feldman said.
But those against the legislation say the police investigative files contain lots of sensitive information — including evidence from witnesses and information about other crimes — that must be protected.
“We oppose efforts to make criminal investigative files public without law enforcement’s discretion,” Dana G. Schrad, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police,