Two years ago this month, activist Aaron Malin and attorney Dave Roland breezed into the Audrain County Sheriff's Office in Mexico, Missouri, and requested entrance to the executive board meeting for the East Central Missouri Drug Task Force.
In response, Malin and Roland got a polite-but-firm escort out the door
"This meeting's not a public meeting," a sheriff's lieutenant told Malin, who was recording the interaction on his phone. "You guys need to leave."
But in reality, the January 29, 2015 meeting — or at least a portion of it — should have been open to Malin and members of the public. In a judgment handed down Wednesday, a circuit judge ruled that the task force had violated multiple provisions of the state's Sunshine Law, which seeks to ensure transparency for government and taxpayer-funded entities.
Not only had the task force's officials failed to open their meetings to the public, the judge wrote, but they hadn't posted public notice of meeting times and locations. They had also neglected to appoint a custodian of records to handle public requests for documents, as the law requires.
The judgment is the first of its kind, says Roland, who is currently representing Malin in several lawsuits against Missouri drug task forces and county prosecutors.
According to a press release from Roland, "This decision represents the first formal judgment handed down in a broader campaign of strategic litigation aimed at ensuring that those responsible for enforcing the laws are, themselves, transparent and accountable to the people."
However, the decision stopped short of affirming two key accusations that Roland and Malin have leveled at the East Central Missouri Drug Task Force:
First, that the task force knowingly
violated the state's Sunshine laws; and second, that former Audrain County Sheriff Stuart Miller committed forgery when he secretly altered documents prior to handing them over to Malin
"The conduct of the defendants was not purposeful," Twelfth Judicial Circuit Judge Rachel Bringer Shepherd wrote, ruling that the task force would not face a civil penalty or be forced to pay Roland's attorney fees. "The defendants did not commit a knowing violation of the Sunshine Law. The defendants were not aware that they were knowingly violating the law."
The issue of whether Miller can be sued for his alleged forgeries is also up in the air. Roland and Malin didn't know the former sheriff had been altering the details in certain documents before providing them — that is, until Miller straight-up admitted it during the June 2016 trial
. Roland wants to amend Malin's lawsuit to address what could be another violation of the Sunshine Law, and a teleconference between Roland, Miller's lawyer and the judge has been scheduled for February 22 to tackle the issue.
"I believe Sheriff Miller committed a felony," Roland told Riverfront Times after the summer trial
. "He expected Aaron to believe the documents were copies of the original, and he did. Aaron had no reason to believe otherwise."
Regardless, Roland and Malin's lawsuit has already had its intended effect: The judgment notes that the East Central Missouri Drug Task Force has moved to change its meeting policies in response to the lawsuit. Now, the task force publicly posts its agenda prior to conducting open meetings, and those meetings are now held in the Mexico City Hall, not tucked away in a restricted area of the sheriff's office. Progress!
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com