Appeals court hears OBX judge's records dispute with town

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A North Carolina appeals court is considering whether to force municipalities to open more of their internal records to the public.

The state Court of Appeals heard Wednesday from attorneys for Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett of Manteo, who's had a long-running fight with a police department that detained his adult son. Tillett argues he's entitled to see an insurance provider's private review into the Kill Devil Hills Police Department.

The Outer Banks beach town counters that the documents a trial judge ordered released should stay private because they contain personnel and criminal investigative information.

Tillett was reprimanded in 2013 for misuse of power after pressuring the town's police and the local prosecutor. The Judicial Standards Commission found his conduct threatened public confidence in judicial integrity and impartiality.

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A North Carolina judge's long-running fight with the police department that detained his adult son could force municipalities to provide more of their internal records to the public.

The state Court of Appeals on Wednesday hears from attorneys for Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett of Manteo. He argues he's entitled to see an insurance provider's private review into the workings of the Kill Devil Hills Police Department.

Tillett, a trial judge on the Outer Banks since 1993, has had an ongoing dispute with the beach town since its police stopped his son's vehicle for an unspecified reason in 2010. Eleven days later, Tillett called town and police officials to a meeting in his chambers to complain about his son's traffic stop and raise a series of other complaints about alleged police misconduct. The next year, Tillett again pressed police Chief Gary Britt, the assistant town manager and the local district attorney over complaints he said he was hearing.

Tillett was reprimanded in 2013 for misuse of power after pressuring the town's police and the local prosecutor in ways that seemed threatening. The Judicial Standards Commission, which hears complaints against judges, found Tillett's conduct threatened the public's confidence in the court's integrity and impartiality.

Tillett sued Kill Devil Hills in 2015 after he said local officials failed to turn over public records he sought. They included the insurer's evaluation of the police department, and documents relating to the 2011 suspension of Britt and his reinstatement two months later.

State law requires most public papers or electronic correspondence to be released to people who ask for them. The beach town argues that the documents a trial judge ordered released to Tillett last November are exempt from the law because they contain personnel and criminal investigative information, town attorney Dan Hartzog Jr. wrote.

The documents in dispute "include information pertaining to persons or a group of persons that is compiled by public law enforcement agencies for the purpose of attempting to prevent or solve violations of the law, including references to specific criminal matters," Hartzog wrote in one court filing. "Such information is not public record, and the trial court erred in ordering its production."

But Tillett's attorney counters that making documents part of Britt's personnel record doesn't make them exempt from state public records law.

"The investigative report of the Town's police department was made and received by the Town pursuant to law and in connection with the transaction of the public business of the Town. The report is therefore a public record," attorney Norman Shearin wrote in a court brief.

Tillett, a Republican, is seeking re-election next year.