Q&A: Reporting investigations of law enforcement officials

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The following question came from The Press-Dispatch (Petersburg):

Q: The Indiana State Police are investigating an allegation that a county commissioner stole some items from the side of the road that a homeowner had put out under a For Sale sign. The sheriff’s department took the initial report and turned it over to the state police. In light of the libel verdict against the Terre Haute newspaper, what can the newspaper run on this story? The homeowner is willing to tell me his side of the story.

A: Despite the trial court verdict against the Tribune-Star, I believe that newspaper did no wrong in reporting on the complaint of alleged misconduct filed against a sheriff’s deputy. If a settlement hadn’t been reached, I’m confident the verdict would have been overturned at the appellate level.

The newspaper should feel comfortable in reporting the facts from the sheriff’s department daily log on the incident as well as quoting the homeowner and the county commissioner as to their versions of what happened. The same goes for coverage of the Indiana State Police report when completed and the decision by the county prosecutor as to whether any charges should be filed in the case.

Have a media law question for Stephen Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel? Contact him at skey@hspa.com or (317) 624-4427.

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