Activist’s Family Sues Boone County to Obtain Records Related to His Death
P.O. Box 693 Mexico, Missouri www.mofreedom.org (314) 604-6621
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: CONTACT: Dave Roland
June 30, 2020 (314) 604-6621
Despite a Missouri state law that gives family members the right to obtain “complete unaltered and unedited” copies of records involved in the investigation of a death, Boone County has for months refused to produce audio and video recordings related to the death of Ahmonta Harris, a Columbia community activist who was killed in November of 2018. Today the family filed suit in Boone County Circuit Court to force the County to produce the records.
“The law gives us the right to complete, unaltered and unedited copies of the records related to Ahmonta’s death,” explained Shauntel Franklin, Harris’s girlfriend. “We deserve to know as much as possible about the circumstances of his death.”
The Harris family’s lawsuit identified three separate violations. First, the County demanded that the family must pay thousands of dollars in fees that the Sunshine Law does not authorize. Second, the County insisted that it could redact the records even though the County voluntarily dismissed a prior legal action that might have allowed the redactions. And third, the County unilaterally decided that it would treat the family’s records request as “abandoned,” even though the Sunshine Law does not give government entities authority to do so.
“These violations are appalling,” said Dave Roland, director of litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri, which is representing the Harris family in their lawsuit. “It is unconscionable that more than a year after the family exercised their right to request unredacted copies of these records the County still has not produced them.”
It has become common for government entities to charge those who have requested copies of public records for the government’s decision to have attorneys review and redact those records. Transparency advocates have long pointed out that this practice is both incompatible with the text of the Sunshine Law and a powerful deterrent to citizens who wish to review public records. Fortunately, a recent decision by the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, in Gross v. Parson confirmed that the law confers no authority for the government to impose these charges on someone who has requested digital copies of electronically-stored documents.
“The County has attempted to charge the Harris family for sixty hours of attorney’s time in regard to the family’s request for digital copies of electronic recordings,’” Roland said. “That is in addition to more than twenty hours the Sheriff’s Department charged for producing the copies. That is a blatant violation of the Sunshine Law and we could not let it go unchallenged.”
Founded in November 2010, the Freedom Center of Missouri is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to research, litigation, and education in defense of individual liberty and transparent, accountable, constitutionally limited government. The Freedom Center is one of Missouri’s leading legal advocates for government transparency; this is the Freedom Center’s eleventh Sunshine Law case. Additional information about the Freedom Center’s mission, cases, and activities can be found online at www.mofreedom.org