NEWPORT NEWS, VA. – Hemp farmers in Newport News had their home surrounded and handcuffed while police issued a search warrant for marijuana in their home in 2019.
News 3 has been investigating this situation for months.
Shardell Gerald tearfully remembered being handcuffed, taken barefoot from her home, and arrested by the police.
She provided News 3 with copies of her home security video that police showed in her backyard on September 30, 2019.
Gerald and her partner, Lamont Burgress, said they were trying to explain to police that the plants were hemp, which is state registered and legal.
Gerald said she had worked as a social worker for the city of Newport News for the past 12 years and was familiar with government protocols.
She provided News 3 with copies of all state and city records relating to her hemp cultivation.
Gerald sent News 3 a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request she’d made in the days following the raid. She requested a video from local officials with a body camera, information on what led her to believe she was growing marijuana and how much tax money was spent on the raid on her home.
She said she was not given any information about what happened or why.
“I was investigated for about a year before I even knew I hadn’t been charged because after they left there was nothing. We didn’t hear anything, ”said Gerald. “I was trying to figure out why they came the way they came and I made a FOIA request.”
She said the year she did not know why this happened was extremely painful. She said it created doubt and suspicion in their relationship and said the couple believe they followed all the right channels to grow the hemp. Gerald wondered if the police knew something they didn’t.
After failing to receive information at FOIA’s request, the couple filed a civil lawsuit.
Attorney Jimmy Ellenson said he worked to get copies of the body camera video, but the city denied it again.
“You said that the footage from the body camera can be freely selected, whether it should be flipped or not. The city would use its discretion and not turn it around, ”Ellenson said.
News 3 also submitted two separate requests for the body camera video and declined the video.
This was the response from Newport News Police on April 22nd:
“In relation to your request for the body cam material from the incident cited below on September 30, 2019, we will not process the material in accordance with Standard 2.2-3706 B of the Virginia State Code Freedom of Information Act (disclosure of criminal offenses) publish recording restrictions): “Law enforcement agencies provide information on criminal offenses related to criminal offenses upon request. However, when the disclosure of information about criminal incidents may jeopardize an ongoing investigation or prosecution or the safety of an individual; induce a suspect to flee or evade direction; or lead to the destruction of evidence, such information can be withheld until the aforementioned damage is no longer likely as a result of the publication of information. ”
Newport News Police
The following is the response to News 3 from Newport News Police on May 5th:
“Videos from police body cameras are part of the police investigation file. The requested records have been withheld under Virginia Code Section 2.2-3706 (B) (1) of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which excludes police investigation files from mandatory disclosure. The custodian is holding approximately six hours of police camera footage taped on the evening of September 30, 2019 at Ms. Shardell Gerald’s property and at her home in Newport News, Virginia.
There are no pending charges against Ms. Gerald, but since Ms. Gerald has filed a civil lawsuit, the city cannot comment on the matter further. “
Newport News Police
Megan Rhyne is the executive director of the Virginia Coalition of Open Government, a nonprofit that helps the public and the media maintain public records.
She said, “The response you received allows law enforcement to withhold a record that they were asked about, but they don’t need to withhold that record. You make the decision to hold that record back. “
Rhyne said there is no way of knowing why the police are holding the video, but she says it is a typical reaction.
“Just want to say that it is quite common for law enforcement agencies to use this exception when asked about body cam footage,” Rhyne said.
Documents in the case show that city lawyers are trying to dismiss the case. They say the lawsuit does not show how the couple’s rights were violated, that the police acted lawfully and also cited zoning issues.
Gerald believes that as a citizen she has the right to see the video with the body camera and know what caused the police to surround her house that day and then leave her wondering for a year why they were there .
Now both sides are waiting for a federal judge to decide whether police need to produce evidence on the case, including the video from the body camera.