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State sheriffs vary in record request replies

State sheriffs vary in record request replies

February 16th, 2011 in News

Missouri's sheriff departments had a mixed record in their responses to requests for public records, sometimes turning over the documents for free, and sometimes demanding payment upfront before turning over copies of arrest and incident reports, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Missouri Sunshine Coalition requested the incident and arrest reports for Sept. 18 from 114 county sheriff departments. It received responses to the initial request for documents from 77 percent of the agencies. Roughly two-dozen agencies required upfront payment for the records, and 20 sheriff departments sent the reports for free, according to the organization's findings.

Under Missouri law, records about the arrest or detention of someone and about the date, time, location, and immediate facts of a crime are public records. Missouri's open records law - called the Sunshine Law - allows government agencies responding to records requests to charge up to 10 cents per page for copying costs. Government agencies also can charge for the cost for researching the requested records. The law does not prohibit charging for the records before providing them.

The Missouri Sunshine Coalition is a freedom of information group created in 2009, and The Associated Press is a member. Those involved in the study said the varying responses demonstrate the importance of educating people about open records laws.

"There's a severe lack of understanding of basic Sunshine Law provisions among the sheriff departments in this state in regard to the proper way to respond to a Sunshine Law request," said Jean Maneke, a Kansas City attorney who is an open records expert and a member of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition.

However, Maneke said the response from several departments was a "wonderful display of open government."

An example of the varied responses was in the reported charges for documents.

Officials in Lincoln County - north of St. Louis - provided 24 pages of records for free, and in southeastern Missouri, Mississippi County sent 16 pages at no cost. The Adair County's Department in northern Missouri provided five pages of documents and an e-mail indicating the agency was happy to waive the fees.

According to the Sunshine Coalition's report, the Maries Sheriff's Office -southeast of the state capital - said it charged $10 for each report and obtaining the requested documents for 38 incidents would cost $380. In Franklin County, which is southwest of St. Louis, the sheriff's department said it charged $5 per report and that obtaining the requested documents would cost $355.

Franklin County Sheriff's Department Capt. Don W. Jones said Wednesday that the agency groups the costs for researching and copying the reports into the $5 fee. He said that fee is less than actual copying and research costs and that there never have been complaints.

"It was not an arbitrary number that we came up with," Jones said. "We understand the public has a right to certain reports, we don't argue that. But at the same time, (the law) also states in there that for the time and effort it takes to do this, that we can charge."

To conduct the study, the Sunshine Coalition sent letters to sheriff departments to request the arrest and incident reports on Sept. 24. Follow-up letters were then sent on Nov. 2 to those agencies that did not responded to the initial request. In January, the coalition called 11 counties that still had not responded to the request for documents.