Cole County Judge To Hear Government Transparency Case

Cole County Judge To Hear Government Transparency Case

As we recently announced, the Freedom Center is taking on a number of cases aimed at ensuring that government entities in Missouri remain transparent and accountable to the people.  On March 10, 2017, one of those cases will go to trial in Jefferson City.

In 2014, Aaron Malin was researching how Missouri’s multi-jurisdictional drug task forces use the extraordinary authority and taxpayer money that the state has given them.  He relied on the state’s Sunshine Law to ask many of these task forces to give him access to a range of open public records, such as forms related to the publicly-funded grants they receive, meeting minutes for the task forces’ executive boards, and documents indicating how these groups utilized civil asset forfeiture.  Some of the task forces recognized their obligation to produce these records and responded accordingly.  Others refused to provide the records.  And then there was the so-called MUSTANG Task Force, which is made up of officers from Cole County, Boone County, Callaway County, and a number of mid-Missouri cities.

MUSTANG initially indicated that it would comply with Malin’s request for records, arranging for him to personally inspect those records in accordance with the Sunshine Law.  But when Malin arrived to do so, he found that a significant amount of information had been redacted from the documents, and the Task Force’s representatives would not (or could not) identify any statute that authorized the redactions.  A few months later, Malin sent another records request to Dennis Crane, who at the time was Sheriff of Callaway County and the chairman of the MUSTANG Task Force’s Executive Board.  Crane acknowledged receiving the request and he provided some documents in response – but the documents he provided were not the kind of records Malin had asked for.  When Malin pointed this out, Crane asked for more details regarding the information Malin was requesting, and Malin provided those details later that day.  Crane did not respond.  Malin later made two additional records requests, but Crane did not respond to either of these in any way.

At that point, Malin asked the Freedom Center to send Crane a letter explaining his legal obligation to respond to requests submitted under the Sunshine Law.

Letter to Crane - 04.13.15

Nevertheless, even after being fully informed of his legal obligations, Sheriff Crane still refused to respond to Malin’s public records requests.  Malin filed suit on May 20, 2015.

Malin v. MUSTANG Task Force, et al., will go to trial before Judge Patricia Joyce, the Presiding Judge of the Cole County Circuit Court at 9:00 a.m. on Friday, March 10, 2017, in the Division IV Courtroom.  The public is welcome to attend.

This case is particularly noteworthy because MUSTANG and its Custodian of Records were directly informed of their responsibility under the Sunshine Law and of the penalties for refusing to comply. A knowing or purposeful violation of this law authorizes courts to award a plaintiff civil penalties and attorney fees.  If courts decline to award these penalties or attorney fees—especially when a citizen has gone out of their way to inform a public official of his or her obligations under the law—the Sunshine Law will be rendered practically useless. Few citizens have the resources to fight these violations where there is no reasonable hope of recovering fees.

This case is part of a statewide strategic litigation campaign that the Freedom Center has undertaken in order to establish that those responsible for enforcing this state’s laws must themselves comply with the laws, and also to demonstrate that a public official who has been informed of his or her responsibilities under the Sunshine Law may not claim ignorance as an excuse to escape penalty for violating those laws.  We currently have similar cases underway against drug task forces in St. Louis City, St. Louis County, Kansas City, and against the Cole County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.  If you share our conviction that law enforcers must themselves obey this state’s laws, please make a tax-exempt donation to support our work by clicking the button on the right side of this page or going to mofreedom.org/donate.

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