Last week a judge in Missouri became the first to rule that a government entity that cites one reason for not producing Sunshine Law requested documents cannot come back and cite other exemptions when sued.
Judge Jon Beteem, Cole County Circuit Court, noted that to find otherwise would be “contrary to public policy” and would “discourage citizens from …challeng[ing] the exemptions claimed by a government entity that withholds documents, if, after a lawsuit is filed, the government could cite additional exemptions.”
In March 2012 the ACLU of Missouri requested materials related to a complaint from a state prisoner who said a Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) employee intentionally damaged his Quran during a cell search. DOC refused to release the materials, citing a single exemption from a Sunshine Law.
The court found by citing only one reason for withholding the documents, DOC waived all additional exemptions.
Because the claimed exemption was not valid, DOC has agreed to turn over unredacted documents responsive to the ACLU’s request and pay the ACLU’s attorneys’ fees and costs.
“The average citizen does not have the resources to challenge Sunshine Law denials, and it was unfair to allow the government to pile on exemptions after a lawsuit is filed,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “The judge’s ruling helps level the playing field for the vast majority of citizens who do not have the resources to hit a moving target.”
“The Sunshine Law was created to give the public a window into the activities of our government,” says Jeffrey A. Mittman, the ACLU of Missouri’s director.
“Instead of looking for ways to fog that window, Missouri’s public bodies need to grant requests for information as required by Chapter 610.”’
For case documents, see http://www.aclu-mo.org/legal-docket/aclu-v-modoc-sunshine-law-case/.