COLUMBIA — Ask for one day’s worth of arrest and incident reports from your local sheriff, and you could get all the documents for free.
Or officials might charge hundreds of dollars and demand payment up front before sending anything.
Or they may not respond at all.
A Sunshine Law audit of Missouri’s 114 county sheriffs revealed vast inconsistencies in responses to requests for basic public information. Eighty-eight agencies responded to the coalition’s initial request for information in some form, a response rate of 77 percent. But some required large payments for records, and some never responded.
“The results of this project point to a real imperative to ramp up the education of public officials about the Sunshine Law,” said Jim Robertson, the coalition’s president. “The law demands responsiveness by government officials to requests for information from the public and clearly mandates access to the records we requested. We found that too many jurisdictions fail to understand or follow the law.”
The audit, conducted from September to January by the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting freedom of information in the Show-Me State, reveals that more education is needed for Missouri’s public agencies.
How the audit was conducted
Public-information requests should be responded to within 72 business hours of receiving the request, which can be made orally. Paper copies under the law should cost no more than 10 cents per page. Search time should be billed at “actual cost of research time” using the employee that results in the lowest charges for the time involved.
“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 attorney Jean Maneke, a Missouri Sunshine Law expert and coalition member.
On Sept. 24, the coalition sent letters to all county sheriff’s offices requesting all incident and arrest reports — records deemed open to the public under the Missouri Sunshine Law, Chapter 610, Revised Statutes of Missouri — for the date Sept. 18. Three letters came back “return to sender.”
On Nov. 2, follow-up letters were sent to the offices that did not respond to the first request. A dozen counties responded to the second letter.
In January, coalition members called the remaining 11 counties (Barry, Dent, DeKalb, Gentry, Knox, Madison, Marion, Moniteau, St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve and Stoddard) that had not responded to either request. Several stated they had not received the letters; Madison County was the only one that reported having fulfilled the request.
The coalition’s audit uncovered a number of inconsistencies in application of the Sunshine Law, including:
· Access to documents: Thirty offices sent the documents. However, 25 counties required upfront payment, and three (Buchanan, Montgomery, and Worth) did not fulfill the request, saying it was not specific enough. Several other counties requested more specificity before fulfilling the request.
· Fees for copying and research: Twenty offices sent the documents for free. But some charged as much as $10 per report, and Shannon County charged $20 per report. The highest proposed charges were from Maries ($380, $10 per report), Franklin ($355, $5 per report), and Cole ($205, for unspecified administrative costs)
Several counties overstepped their bounds by asking what the request was for; requesters are not required to disclose why they want the information.
Polk County would not fulfill the request unless the requester came in person. The sheriff’s office also would not accept personal checks. Atchison County said the request requires “physical presence,” unless it is from an insurance company or legal counsel. Buchanan County called the request “vague” and “nonspecific.”
However, many counties had no problem fulfilling the request.
Some of the most accommodating were:
· Adair County: Sent five pages, and responded via e-mail saying, “We are happy to honor your request for fees to be waived.
· Lincoln County: Sent 24 pages of documents free of charge.
· Mississippi County: Sent 16 pages free of charge.
An Excel spreadsheet of all the results is available by request. is available for download here.
Questions can be directed to coalition president Jim Robertson at (573) 815-1600.
The Missouri Sunshine Coalition was chartered in 2009 as a nonprofit organization of citizens and journalists interested in preserving open government and access to public information.