AUSTIN (TEXAS) — A loophole in Texas public records law allowed information related to the death of Javier Ambler, a 40-year-old black man who died in the custody of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, to remain in the dark for 15 months.
Ambler died in the custody of Williamson County deputies on March 28, 2019 after a 22-minute chase that began in Williamson County and ended in north Austin. The pursuit began after Ambler failed to dim his headlights for oncoming traffic, according to a police report.
Ambler can be heard on body camera footage recorded by an Austin Police Department officer saying “I can’t breathe” and informing officers that he suffered from congestive heart failure, which was included in his cause of death.
For more than a year, little information was released about Ambler’s death or the pursuit until APD, which is investigating the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office use of force, released an 8-minute body camera video from one of its officers that responded to the scene in north Austin.
The silence surrounding Ambler’s death was aided by the so-called ‘dead suspect loophole,’ an exception within Texas public records law that states law enforcement agencies only have to release “basic” information about a suspect if that suspect isn’t convicted or is never placed on deferred adjudication.
The loophole was the subject of the KXAN Investigation “Denied Evidence,” which began in 2018.
State Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) authored a bill last legislative session that would have closed the loophole. It failed, he said, because of opposition from law enforcement groups.
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“Of course, if someone dies in police custody they will never be convicted, they will never be placed on deferred adjudication,” Moody said. “That was not the purpose of the exception, but it’s been utilized more and more frequently.”
Moody said the original law had an important purpose; by offering the exception, the accused would be better protected. However, he says the exception is now being “exploited.”
In May, the Texas Attorney General’s Office responded to a request from the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office asking what it was required to release publicly about the Ambler case, citing the exception.
The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office was told that only basic information needed to be shared.
“Right now, the law is not working and we’re seeing new videos all the time that come out from a year ago or more,” said Nick Hudson of ACLU Texas.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said investigators aren’t getting a full picture, either. She said earlier this week that both the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office and the reality television show Live PD, which recorded Ambler’s death, have “stonewalled” the use of force investigation.
“Without the full cooperation and production of whatever evidence there may be that led up to the incident, that is critical evidence for this investigation,” Moore said.
In a statement to KXAN, A&E Network said neither the show nor the producers of Live PD were asked for footage.
“As is the case with all footage taken by Live PD producers, we no longer retained the unaired footage after learning that the investigation had concluded,” the statement said.
Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody denied the accusations by Moore, saying his department is willing to cooperate with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office but has not been asked to do so.
Moody said he plans to once again present legislation to close the ‘dead suspect loophole’ at next year’s legislative session.
“Government doesn’t get to decide what’s good for us to know and not good for us to know,” Moody said.
The Travis County District Attorney’s Office intends to present the use of force case to a special grand jury in July.