There’s a saying in the sports world that nothing good ever happens after midnight. That’s because blue-chip recruits don’t call up a coach at 2 a.m. and commit to their program. No, the calls at 2 a.m. are usually to come bail somebody out of jail for getting in a fight after the bars close.
We’re not talking about a bar brawl here. We are talking about doing anything in wee hours of the morning. Sober or not, it’s generally not a good idea. When it comes to legislating, it’s a really bad idea.
Thus, as June rolled into July, we were treated to a spectacle in Raleigh over Senate Bill 168 marked by protests, arrests and a fair number of embarrassed faces in the General Assembly. SB 168 was supposed to be mundane legislation, referred to in lawmaker parlance as an “agency bill’’ to make technical corrections requested by the Department of Health and Human Services. What got passed appears to be quite different.
The bill passed in a near-unanimous vote, with every legislator present in favor except one. In North Carolina laws that occur in jails, prisons or law enforcement custody must be reported to a county medical examiner. Public records laws exempt law enforcement investigations, but if investigations into deaths are passed to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, they become public record.
SB 168 changes that, keeping those records from public scrutiny. The change was supposed to be a “clarification.”
That’s a pretty big clarification. It opens the possibility that police car and bodycam video could be deemed as part of death investigations and be shielded. Currently such videos can be made public under court order.
DHHS says it wanted the change because it would make law enforcement agencies less reluctant to turn over some records.
Gov. Roy Cooper said, “I think most people don’t want to have that provision, and I think we’ll find a way to fix it.” Late Monday, Cooper vetoed the bill.
When the history of the early years of the new millennium is written, the most important invention cited is likely to be the cell phone camera. Footage played by the public has proven invaluable in any number of cases where police abused their authority, and public cell phones have been the impetus for dashboard and body cameras becoming standard issue for peace officers.
Such footage has helped sparked mass protests across the nation in recent weeks, galvanized by the gut-wrenching saga of George Floyd being essentially executed in broad daylight before a crowd of onlookers.
North Carolina’s legislation provides an opportunity for all sorts of mischief by shielding the public’s eyes from official records. It does indeed need to be fixed. The public has taken notice. Leaders must follow.
And in the future, legislators deciding on laws at 3 in the morning shouldn’t be reaching for the “vote’’ button.
They should be reaching for a pillow.
Nothing good happens after midnight.
Jim Buchanan is the editor of The Sylvia Herald, former Editorial Page Editor for the Asheville Citizen-Times and writes for Carolina Commentary.