The Freedom Center of Missouri and client, Aaron Malin, are now four-for-four winning trial court judgments that various government entities are obligated to comply with the state’s Sunshine Law. The most recent victory, however, was a record-breaker.
After the Freedom Center and its co-counsel from the ACLU of Missouri proved that Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson knowingly and purposefully refused to comply with the Sunshine Law—even after Freedom Center director of litigation Dave Roland sent a letter informing Richardson of the violation and warning of a lawsuit if Richardson did not fulfill his legal obligations, Cole County Judge Patricia Joyce awarded Malin the largest transparency-related civil penalty in Missouri’s history. Now, in addition to being required to produce the records Malin requested, the Prosecuting Attorney must pay a fine of $12,100.00 and pay Malin’s attorney fees.
This strategic campaign for government transparency began in 2014 when Malin submitted public records requests to more than two dozen law enforcement agencies all over the state, but only about half produced the requested records as required by state law. This miserable rate of compliance mirrors studies suggesting that only about one in three government entities in Missouri abides by the people’s demands for transparency. Because the Freedom Center believes that the people can only hold their government accountable if they know what their government is doing in their name and with their tax dollars, the organization launched six transparency-focused cases aimed at enforcing citizens’ rights under the Sunshine law. So far this year we have racked up four wins in the courtroom… and there may be more before the year ends.
Government entities all over the state will feel the impact of this latest ruling. The hefty penalty Judge Joyce issued to Richardson serves as a loud warning to government officials and agencies that there will indeed be consequences for future violations of Missouri’s Sunshine Law.
We are currently awaiting a ruling following an October 20th hearing in Audrain County Sheriff’s Office v. Winnie and Malin, in which the Sheriff’s office sued two citizens who were seeking records related to the death of Ms. Winnie’s daughter. The Freedom Center is also preparing for a December 1st trial in Malin v. St. Louis County Drug Task Force, which involves the task force’s failure either to provide the statutorily-required notice of its board meetings or to keep proper minutes of those meetings. Be sure to follow the Freedom Center of Missouri’s website and Facebook page for the latest updates.