A recent New Yorker Article describes an incoming sheriff, replacing an old (corrupt) sheriff on his first day:

"when he unlocked the doors to the sheriff’s office on his first day on the job, January 1, 2017, he found nine industrial-sized trash bags full of shredded papers. Jail trusties—model inmates who did menial jobs at the sheriff’s office—told him that they’d spent two weeks destroying paperwork, at the previous administration’s instruction. “They had wiped stuff off the computers,” Dix said. “They had even taken notebooks off shelves and shredded the documents.”

I know states often have data retention laws for public records. Does Georgia have any data retention laws, and could the old Sheriff be charged with a crime for destroying documents, or potentially even evidence?

1 Answer 1


Yes, the State of Georgia has laws regarding data retention in terms of public records, but the article doesn't nearly have enough information to answer the 2nd half of your question. Different kinds of public records are subject to different periods of time they are required to be kept available. Here's a list of them.

One issue is that just by reading the story we don't have enough information as to what records were destroyed, and without knowing that it's not certain whether a prima facie violation of the law had occured. Not all documents under the possession of the sheriff is subject to these laws, and certainly the sheriff spent enough time in office to claim that plenty of records were no longer required to be kept by the time he left it. The state also has a specific exception that states

"provided, however, that an investigation or prosecution shall no longer be deemed to be pending when all direct litigation involving such investigation and prosecution has become final or otherwise terminated". Ga Code 50-18-72(a)(4)

Furthermore, even if it does constitute a violation in this case, the penalties are exceedingly low on the criminal justice totem pole. The same statute indicates that the crime is a misdemeanor subject to $1000 in fine or civil penalty for a first offense, $2500 for each additional offense in the 12 months after the first, and the law also explicitly states that the charged defendant will not be arrested prior to trial unless they fail to show up to their court date. For a first offender it's extremely unlikely that they would serve much time at all even if they went to trial and was convicted by a jury, and in all likelihood there would be a plea bargain to something even more minor.

There is also a particular high intent requirement here, that of "knowingly and willfully", with a good-faith exception to boot. There are more defenses that avenues of prosecution looking from the outside. Although there is an additional penalty for destroying records specifically to hamper an investigation into the entity in question, because there wasn't an active investigation when the records were destroyed nor was an investigation into the sheriff's conduct ever launched, that also would unlikely to apply. So chances of any serious prosecution being launched several years after the fact based on what's going to be a misdemeanor at most seems extremely unlikely.

  • If they destroy a thousand documents, is that not $1000 + 999 * $2,500 for all the additional offenses after the first one? Jan 22, 2021 at 18:09
  • That is, if I decided one day to ignore all red traffic lights, would I not be charged for each light? I'd be laughed out of court if I claimed that it's a single offense. Jan 22, 2021 at 18:11
  • The wording of the statute uses "records" pertaining to incidents instead of specific and individual "documents", so the inference would be that even if properly charged and convicted, the penalties in such a case would be determined not on a per-document basis but per-underlying-incident case. If your state's red light laws state that "failures to stop at red lights during a trip constitute a traffic offense" or something similar, you'd have a case. However, I'm guessing that traffic codes make it clear that each failure to stop is a violation.
    – Jim Zhou
    Jan 23, 2021 at 6:06

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