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Newport News refuses to release body camera video of hemp growers being detained

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Posted at 11:12 AM, May 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-11 11:12:43-04

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Hemp growers in Newport News had their home surrounded and were put in handcuffs while police executed a search warrant for marijuana in their home in 2019.

News 3 has been investigating this situation for months.

Tearfully, Shardell Gerald recalled being put into handcuffs, being brought outside of her home barefoot and being detained by police.

She provided News 3 with copies of her home security video that showed police in their backyard on September 30, 2019.

Gerald and her partner, Lamont Burgress, said they tried to explain to police that the plants were hemp, registered with the state and legal.

Gerald said she has worked for the City of Newport News as a social worker for the past 12 years and said she's familiar with government protocols.

She provided News 3 with copies of all the documentation from the state and city pertaining to her hemp growing operation.

Gerald provided News 3 with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request she made in the days following the raid. She requested body camera video from the officers on scene, information about what led them to believe that she was growing marijuana and how much tax money was spent on the raid at her home.

She said she was not provided with any information about what happened or why.

“I was under investigation for about a year before I even knew that there were no charges against me because after they left there was nothing. We heard nothing,” said Gerald. “I tried to find out why they came in the manner that they came with, and I filed a FOIA request."

She said the year of not knowing why this happened was extremely painful. She said it caused doubt and mistrust in her relationship and said the couple believed that they had followed all the proper channels to grow the hemp. Gerald wondered if police knew something she didn’t.

After not getting any information through their FOIA request, the couple filed a civil lawsuit.

The attorney, Jimmy Ellenson, said he has worked to get a copies of the body camera video, but again, the city denied it.

“They said the body camera footage is discretionary whether or not to turn it over. The city would be exercising its discretion and not turning it over,” said Ellenson.

News 3 also filed two separate requests for the body camera video and were denied the video.

This was the response from Newport News Police on April 22:

“In reference to your request for the body cam footage from the incident you cited below on September 30, 2019, we will not be releasing the footage in accordance with Virginia State Code Freedom of Information Act Standard 2.2-3706 B. (Disclosure of criminal records limitations): “Law enforcement agencies shall make available upon request criminal incident information relating to felony offenses. However, where the release of criminal incident information is likely to jeopardize an ongoing investigation or prosecution, or the safety of an individual; cause a suspect to flee or evade direction; or result in the destruction of evidence, such information may be withheld until the above-referenced damage is no longer likely to occur from release of information.”
Newport News Police

The following is the response given to News 3 from Newport News Police on May 5:

“Police body camera videos are part of the police criminal investigative file. The requested records were withheld pursuant to Virginia Code Section 2.2-3706 (B)(1) of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which excludes police criminal investigative files from mandatory disclosure. The custodian is withholding approximately six hours of police body camera footage taken on the property of Ms. Shardell Gerald and within her residence .....in Newport News, Virginia on the evening of September 30, 2019.

There are no charges pending against Ms. Gerald, but as Ms. Gerald has filed a civil lawsuit, the city is unable to comment further on the matter.”
Newport News Police

Megan Rhyne is the Executive Director of Virginia Coalition of Open Government, a nonprofit that helps the public and media obtain public records.

She said, “The response that you got is one that allows law enforcement to withhold a record that they've been asked for, but they are not required to withhold that record; they are making a choice to withhold that record.”

Rhyne said there is no way to know why police are withholding the video, but she says this is a typical response.

“I will just say that it is pretty common for law enforcement to use this exemption when they are asked for body cam footage,” said Rhyne.

Documents in the case show city attorneys are trying to get the case dismissed, saying the lawsuit fails to show how the couple's rights were violated, that police acted lawfully and also citing zoning issues.

Gerald believes as citizen she has a right to see the body camera video and know what led police to surround her home that day, then leave her wondering for a year why they were there.

Now, both sides are waiting on a federal judge to decide whether the police have to turn over evidence in the case, including the body camera video.