City of Huntsville charges defendants for body cam videos, issue raised in immigration counter-protester’s criminal case

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The case of Shane Sealy may not draw much public sympathy, but what's going on with his criminal case has implications well beyond its outcome.

It started at an emotionally charged demonstration in Huntsville about the U.S. government family separation policy in June of 2018.

Sealy was a counter-protester, accused of bringing a gun to the rally.

His case went before Huntsville city court and he was found guilty of menacing and reckless endangerment. Prosecutors dropped those charges in January after he appealed for a jury trial.

"Approximately six months later for the same incident and he was rearrested, forced to post another bond, and come back and face this new charge," his attorney Joshua Graff told WHNT News 19.

Sealy went to trial in city court again in June. The court found him guilty of bringing a gun to a public demonstration.

Now he's appealing again to the circuit court.

Sealy is now facing a jury trial, so Graff, his attorney, looked for more evidence. He sought Huntsville police body cam footage, but the city said before handing over the video he'd have to pay for it. Fifty dollars for the first officer's video, seventy-five dollars for each one after that.

"We had an issue with the city requiring an individual to pay for videos of themselves interacting with law enforcement," Graff said.

Huntsville City Attorney Trey Riley told WHNT News 19 those fees are cost-related.

"Police have literally hundreds of officers out there with body cams and so that's a huge amount of video and so when someone makes a request for that video it has to be obtained," Riley said.

And, those costs can add up.

"Due to the number of individuals who were on scene there, it would have cost him approximately $650 for what we believed was information he should have been given as part of his defense," Graff said.

Under the law - defendants are entitled to confront their accuser. Alabama's Rules of Criminal Procedure also spells out what evidence defendants are entitled to from the state.

"Alabama rules of criminal procedure says that a defendant is entitled to inspect, exam and copy any relevant and material evidence," said veteran criminal defense attorney Ron Smith. "Obviously, a body cam would be relevant and material evidence."

But there's a process in Huntsville to get access.

"And our general policy has been if they're indigent they get a copy of it, but if they are not indigent then there is a nominal fee charge because there is a lot of intensive labor to get those videos before," said City Attorney Riley.

Sealy's attorney Graff said he's only been asked to pay for it in Huntsville.

"I've never had to pay for a video from any other jurisdiction and with my work here in Alabama, I've worked in all the neighboring counties and nobody's ever required me to pay for a video," he said.

Grant took the matter to the trial court and asked for the videos without a fee.

"The judge granted it, in part, and required the city to turn those tapes over," Graff said.

They won, for now.

"The judge did say that the would reserve the right to impose a tax, on my client if he was found guilty, or took a plea agreement, to assess some reasonable fee associated with obtaining those videos," Graff said.

When WHNT News 19 asked if the City of Huntsville was violating the rules of criminal procedure by charging for evidence, the city attorney pointed to the court ruling issued by Madison County Circuit Judge Chris Comer.

"I note the judge's order in this case and I thought there was wisdom attached to that order," Riley said.

But Graff says the fees are inconsistent.

"If Huntsville City initiates a felony case, out of the municipal jurisdiction and goes directly to the district attorney's office at the county level, there's no request to fill out additional paperwork or to pay to get those videos in a felony case," he said.

Huntsville Defense Attorney Ron Smith says the issue of paying fees for evidence isn't going away.

"If it's bad for your defendant then certainly the city is going to pay it," Smith said. "If it's good for the defendant,  then it's exculpatory or favorable to the defendant, which the Supreme Court has held you have to turn that over to the defendant, so he has the favorable evidence as well as the bad evidence."

"It's due to come to the defendant either way."

The issue in Sealy's case is access to body camera evidence. But with encounters with police dominating headlines, this won't be the last time we talk about body cameras, as Alabama residents continue to wonder what, if any rights, they have when it comes to police camera footage.

Sealy is set to go on trial on November 18.

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