David Roland, left (photo by Sarah Fenske) and Aaron Malin, right (courtesy of Aaron Malin).
St. Louis Police violated Missouri's Sunshine law when they rejected a researcher's request for public records related to its drug task force
, a judge found — rejecting the city's arguments after a three-day trial in May.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Mark H. Neill made his ruling yesterday, granting another victory to the two-man team attempting to probe the workings of drug task forces across Missouri.
Aaron Malin, who is now a recent law school graduate, and David Roland, director of litigation at the Freedom Center of Missouri, have sued multiple entities across the state after being denied basic records. Last year, they even notched the single largest civil penalty awarded for a Sunshine law violation in Missouri history
, in a case against the Cole County prosecuting attorney.
This time, the judge failed to assess penalties against the police department, or even award Roland his attorney's fees. But his ruling makes it clear that the department erred in summarily refusing to turn over the records — and it will leave St. Louis Police no choice but to finally comply with Malin's request.
The case's long history suggests why so many people whose records requests are rejected choose to give up rather than fight.
In late 2013 and early 2014, Malin (then a researcher for Show-Me Cannabis) requested records from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, seeking from the "St. Louis Metro Drug Task Force custodian of records" budgetary documents, documents showing the quantity of weapons and narcotics found and its assets seized.
In response, Mark Lawson, then the secretary and legal counsel for the police board, wrote Malin to say that the department "does not have a 'St. Louis Drug Task Force.'
Therefore, we have no records responsive to your request." Malin persisted, pointing to records he'd found elsewhere suggesting the city did indeed have such a task force. But Lawson also rejected his two follow-up requests.
And, as Judge Neill details in his ruling, Lawson claimed the task force didn't exist despite having long been the department's designated contact for its "Metro Multi-Jurisdictional Undercover Drug Program." In its contract with Maryland Heights for the program, as well as applications for state funding, the department even called the program "a multi-jurisdictional task force" and, in some cases, simply "drug task force."
Lawson personally signed those contracts on behalf of the police board, Neill wrote. And in applications for state funding, he certified that the information was true and correct.
It gets worse. As Neill noted, "At all relevant times Mr. Lawson was familiar with the requirements of the Sunshine Law and the penalties for knowingly or purposely violating the Sunshine Law, having litigated several cases involving the law."
Yet not only did Lawson fail to provide the responsive records, he also failed to turn over Malin's request to the department's official custodian of records. She testified at trial that "she was aware that a drug task force existed," Judge Neill wrote. Had she received a response that no such records existed, she testified, "she would have inquired further because she knew a drug task force existed." Instead, Lawson stonewalled.
Fighting the case for years, as well as going to trial against Roland, likely cost the city thousands of dollars — in addition to Neill's ruling that it has to cover costs, certainly in man hours. Roland says his own fees add up to about $70,000. But hey, in the city's case, it's only taxpayer money, right?
In a prepared release, Roland expressed disappointment that Judge Neill's ruling will not assess any real penalty against the city for its intransigence.
“The defendants’ taxpayer-funded attorneys spent nearly three and a half years doggedly insisting that Lawson, a highly skilled and experienced attorney, had no knowledge of the Task Force on whose behalf he had signed dozens of documents and did not understand his responsibilities under the Sunshine Law,” Roland noted.
“That Judge Neill recognized a reasonable person would have understood Malin’s requests and provided the documents, yet still could not find that Lawson’s Sunshine Law violations were knowing or purposeful, shows that the law needs to change. As long as public agencies and officials face no substantial consequences for breaking the law, they will continue to do so.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story wrongly described Aaron Malin. He recently graduated law school; he is no longer a law student. We regret the error.
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