A Mecklenburg County judge on Thursday blocked the release of video showing the fatal police shooting of a Charlotte man in June.
WFAE’s request for the footage appears to have been the first under a new North Carolina law requiring a court order for all police video releases.
On June 2, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say Rodney Rodriguez Smith, 18, shot and seriously wounded a man on a CATS bus, then fired at least one shot at police before he was fatally wounded.
Officers Michael Bell and Garret Tryon have since been cleared by CMPD and are back at work. Five months after the shooting, however, the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office has not announced whether it will seek charges.
Under a new state law that went into effect Oct. 1, a judge must approve the release of video from patrol cars and the body cameras worn by officers.
On Tuesday, WFAE, the city’s public radio station, went to court seeking a court order for the release of video capturing the Smith shooting. Reporter Lisa Worf argued that the public had a compelling interest in police shootings and in the transparent workings of their local governments, according to WFAE’s account.
Attorneys for the police department, the district attorney’s office and the officers opposed her request, WFAE reported Thursday. Assistant District Attorney Bill Stetzer said the events surrounding Smith’s death remain part of an active law enforcement investigation. George Laughrun, an attorney for one of the officers, said the public viewing of the videos could compromise his client’s trial, should prosecutors decide to bring charges.
On Thursday morning, Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson ordered the video to remain sealed. He said the interests of an ongoing criminal investigation outweigh the more generalized public right to know. Under the law, he wrote, the courts must decide whether a “compelling” necessity exists for a video to be made public. Any release of Smith video, he added, would “create a serious threat to the fair, impartial and orderly administration of justice” at future criminal or civil trials involving the officers, should they occur.
Supporters of the law say it balances the rights of the public with those of police. Critics say the added restriction undermines the public’s right to know at a time when the nation’s attention is fixed on police use of deadly force like never before.
In his order, Levinson said the law “has been the subject of discussion in scholarly publications but not by a court of record.”