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Civil Rights – Investigative Records – Domestic Dispute

A woman and her minor son are entitled to discovery of police investigative records that may shed light on a police officer’s conduct in connection with a domestic dispute between the woman and her son, and the magistrate judge orders the records unsealed, with the names of minor children redacted..

The officer’s conduct was investigated by an officer in the Internal Affairs Department of the town’s police department. The investigative notes and final report of the IA investigator are the subject of this motion to seal and/or strike.

The notes and reports in question were produced by the Town of Christiansburg in discovery and are subject to a protective order.

Defendants contend the IA notes and report should remain sealed because their public dissemination would have a chilling effect on the ability of police departments to conduct such inquiries.

As the exhibits at issue were filed in connection with a non-dispositive motion, it is clear there is no First Amendment right of access. Thus, the only question is whether there is a common law right of public access to these documents. When discovery documents are reasonably related to and offered in support of a motion and the court actually considers those documents, those documents become judicial and subject to a right of public access.

Plaintiffs filed the internal investigative notes and report in support of their response to defendants’ motion to quash. The court considered these documents in rendering a decision; therefore, following Washington v. Buraker, No. 3:02cv00106 (W.D. Va. March 29, 2005), these documents are no longer mere discovery documents, but instead qualify as judicial documents to which the common law presumption of access attaches.

The internal investigative notes and report fall squarely within the public’s interest in understanding the workings of the town’s police department. These documents also clearly fall within the purview of public import as they involve the investigation into allegations that one of the town’s police officers engaged in improper conduct during a criminal investigation and subsequent prosecution, because improperly involved in a domestic dispute and thereafter, acted to cover up her misdeeds. Moreover, these allegations are fully detailed in the complaint, which is widely available to the public, and the investigation details the police department’s findings and conclusions as to these allegations. The court finds that there is a significant public interest in these documents and the documents may serve to advance the public’s understanding of the events at issue and the police department’s investigation thereof.

The court concludes that it is not appropriate to maintain these documents under seal. Nonetheless, the court finds that before Exhibit A may be unsealed it must be redacted to remove the names of minor children and the notes regarding a Sept. 8, 2006 pastoral interview which may be subject to protection under Va. Code Sect. 8.01-400.

Covington v. Semones (Urbanski, J.) No. 7:06cv00614, April 17, 2007; USDC at Roanoke, Va. VLW 007-3-151, 10 pp.

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