A federal magistrate judge in Lafayette on Friday denied a request by The Advocate and television partner KATC to unseal the amount that Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal’s office agreed to pay the minor child of a man who was fatally shot while handcuffed in the backseat of a patrol car.
Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna, who said at a hearing last month that he was inclined to rule in favor of the media organizations, switched course in his 23-page ruling.
Hanna instead found that the privacy rights of the child plaintiff outweigh the public’s interest in knowing the amount the Sheriff's Office paid over the high-profile death of Victor White III in the parking lot of the sheriff’s Patrol Center.
White died from a single gunshot wound to the chest while his wrists were handcuffed behind him following a drug arrest in March 2014.
His death itself did not result in any criminal charges. A coroner ruled it a suicide, and after investigations by both Louisiana State Police and the FBI, state and federal prosecutors declined to pursue charges.
But it sparked a wider federal probe into alleged civil rights violations by deputies in Ackal’s office, which ultimately led 11 deputies to plead guilty. A Shreveport jury acquitted Ackal at a federal trial in 2016.
Hanna ruled last year that a federal civil trial over White’s death could go forward, but the parties agreed to end the case in a closed settlement conference in March, the minutes of which were sealed.
The news organizations asked Hanna to unseal the settlement amount after the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association, which runs an insurance pool for dozens of sheriff’s departments, blacked out the amount in copies of checks provided to The Advocate in a response to a public-records request.
An association attorney argued that releasing the figure would violate the court's sealing order.
Attorney Scott Sternberg argued at last month's hearing that the news organizations have a right to know how taxpayer money is spent, citing both the First Amendment and the Louisiana Public Records Act.
But Hanna found Friday that “the minor child’s interest in being protected from potential predators is a factor that outweighs the public’s interest in knowing the amount of the settlement.”
He also cited “the chilling effect” that publication of the settlement amount could have on negotiations or jury deliberations in pending civil cases against Ackal’s office.
Hanna wrote that he was weighing in favor of the child’s interests, against “the media’s interest in releasing a sensational story regarding the amount of money paid to resolve this lawsuit without knowing anything about how the decisions were ultimately reached” in negotiations.
Sternberg said The Advocate and KATC were reviewing their legal options. Carol Powell Lexing, an attorney for the plaintiff who argued for keeping the settlement secret, did not immediately return a message late Friday seeking comment on the ruling.