In a perfect world, Missouri's Sunshine Law would work as advertised. Passed in 1973, the statute seeks to open windows for media and public alike, allowing everyone to peer into the tax-funded inner workings of governmental process.
But despite our love for Missouri Revised Statutes Section 610.010, the Sunshine Law can become mired, blocked or disputed. For instance, on January 29 two members of the pro-pot group Show-Me Cannabis showed up at the Audrain County Sheriff Office, about 40 minutes northeast of Columbia, hoping to attend a board meeting of the East Central Drug Task Force.
Instead, they were barred from the meeting and ordered to leave. The command wasn't entirely shocking to Show-Me Cannabis director of research Aaron Malin, who filmed his attempt to gain entry to the task force's meeting. Malin has raised several Sunshine Law disputes with Missouri drug task forces in the past, and he says he's increasingly frustrated by these groups' tenacious refusal to provide records and open meetings.
In the video (embedded below), Malin can be heard arguing with Audrain County Sheriff Lieutenant Matthew Oller over whether the meeting is closed or not. But Oller doesn't budge.
"This meeting's not a public meeting," he tells Mailn. "You guys need to leave."
Malin and Oller's exchange begins at around the 3:30 mark in the clip.
"That's pretty clearly in violation of Sunshine Law," Malin tells Daily RFT. "The're allowed to go into closed session for a number of very specific reasons laid out in the Sunshine Law, but they certainly couldn't close an entire meeting when some of those things are discussed."
Malin only knew about the January 29 "executive board" meeting because he obtained open records of the minutes from a November 6, 2014, meeting of the same board. In the minutes of that November meeting, which Malin provided to Daily RFT, the upcoming January 29 meeting is referred to as a "regular," not a closed, meeting.
"There's no distinction in their meeting minutes, and if they're trying to make one now that would be laughable," says Malin. He maintains that by law, if the meeting was mentioned in a publicly available document it should be an open meeting.
Audrain County Sheriff Stuart D. Miller says the East Central Drug Task Force's executive board was within their rights to keep the public -- and Show-Me Cannabis -- from attending the meeting.
"The East Central Drug Task Force has previously complied with two (2) of Mr. Aaron Malin's requests for information made under Missouri's Sunshine Law, and have provided him with documents," Miller says in an emailed statement. "We have, in the past, obtained legal counsel advising that our Executive Board meetings are not open to the public when discussing topics such as: Current criminal investigations, Criminal intelligence information, Personnel matters [and] Legal issues."
Indeed, those topics Miller mentions are not open records under Missouri's Sunshine Law, but he did not clarify why the board closed the entire meeting instead of discussing those topics in a temporary closed session.
Miller also did not explain why the minutes of the board's previous meetings were made public if the meetings themselves are, as he claims, not open to the public.
As for Malin, he says that Show-Me Cannabis is considering "appropriate remedies" to gain access to East Central Drug Task Force's meetings. Two weeks ago the group filed a formal complaint with the Attorney General after the St. Louis County Drug Task Force refused to provide records from its oversight meetings.
"Show-Me Cannabis is committed to holding Missouri's drug task forces accountable when they break the law," Malin says. Besides advocating cannabis legalization in Missouri, the advocacy group has loudly criticized various drug task forces for their overtly secretive policies and their use of asset forfeiture laws to seize private property.