On Friday morning at 9 a.m. Judge Patricia Joyce will hear evidence in Malin v. MUSTANG Task Force, et al. (Case No. 15AC-CC00227), a case that will test the extent to which law enforcement officials may claim ignorance as an excuse for violating the state’s public records laws.

In 2014 and early 2015, Aaron Malin submitted to the MUSTANG Task Force several requests for public records. The Task Force custodian of records, former Callaway County Sheriff Dennis Crane never suggested that the requested records were closed to the public, and he even produced some of the requested records. But then, without offering any explanation, Crane simply quit responding to Malin’s records requests.

Malin’s attorney, Dave Roland of the Freedom Center of Missouri, even sent a letter explaining Crane’s legal obligation to respond to Malin’s requests, but Crane still refused to do so. One month later Malin sued, alleging knowing and purposeful violations of the Sunshine Law.

This case is particularly noteworthy because Crane was directly informed of his 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.

--The Freedom Center of Missouri is a non-profit, non-partisan constitutional litigation center that promotes government transparency and accountability to those being governed. This case is part of a statewide strategic litigation effort 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.

Comstock