Did Sheriff Mix Redaction with Forgery? Lawyer Accuses Drug Task Force of Foul Play

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click to enlarge Did Sheriff Mix Redaction with Forgery? Lawyer Accuses Drug Task Force of Foul Play
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Other than actual criminals, is anyone more irritating to Missouri law enforcement than Aaron Malin? 

It's a fair question. Malin, a 23-year-old law student and former researcher for the group Show-Me Cannabis, has spent years harassing area drug task forces over alleged violations of the state's open records law. He's filed hundreds of Sunshine requests and several lawsuits.

Some agencies ignore his requests outright or insist the law doesn't apply to them. Others seem hell-bent on hiding their very existence. 

Malin is now awaiting what could be a significant decision in a suit he filed against the East Central Drug Task Force, which operates in Mexico, Missouri. This week, Malin and his lawyer raised the stakes even further: In a post-trial motion filed Monday, they accused Audrain County Sheriff Stuart Miller of committing forgery. 

Malin's case against the task force was sparked in January 2015, when an Audrain County detective barred him from attending a meeting of the task force's executive board — a meeting Malin believed was open to the public.

During the June trial, Malin's lawyer, Dave Roland, called on Sheriff Miller to testify about the task force's meetings and how the agency handled open record requests. Miller, the outgoing chair of the task force's executive board, told the court he was familiar with the state's Sunshine law. 

Yet on the stand, Miller admitted that the documents he'd provided Malin had been edited. He said he was removing dates and details, but he didn't do it in the fashion typically associated with redactions — with black strike-out marks making it clear something is being concealed. He simply hit "delete."

“And when you would modify these original documents, would you include any sort of notation acknowledging that you made the modification?” Roland asked, according to a transcript of the trial. 

“No, I did not,” said the sheriff.

To Roland, Miller's statements amounted to a confession. After all, in November 2014, Malin had submitted a Sunshine request to the East Central Drug Task Force asking for the records to be provided without redactions. If the task force wanted to remove sensitive details, Malin had asked for a list of “specific exemptions on which you rely” in making each redaction.

The law is clear, says Roland: Malin had a legal right to know if the documents he'd received had been altered, and Miller was obligated to explain the edits. That never happened.

"He would turn over the altered document as though it was the original. I was just gobsmacked," Roland says.

In Roland's view of things, Miller's actions didn't amount to a minor error. In the motion filed Monday, he characterized the hidden deletions as felony forgery.  

"I believe Sheriff Miller committed a felony," Roland says. "He expected Aaron to believe the documents were copies of the original, and he did. Aaron had no reason to believe otherwise." 

Although a judge in a civil case can't charge someone with a crime, Roland believes it's important to highlight how Miller and the drug task force steamrolled over the law. 

Attorneys for the drug task force, however, say Roland's argument has no merit. They dispute Roland's interpretation of the Sunshine law and maintain that Miller had no obligation to furnish Malin with exhaustive explanations of the redactions. 

At this point, all the parties can do is wait for the judge's decision, which is expected to take months. Malin is seeking thousands of dollars in attorneys fees, while the task force is hoping the judge sends the young gadfly packing.

In the meantime, Roland concedes that the East Central Drug Task Force has worked to improve its compliance with the Sunshine law. Last month, the task force opened a portion of its executive board meeting to the public and even local reporters

Still, "The task force admitted that they had violated the law," Roland says. "That wasn’t in dispute when we went to trial. The only issue is if they will face any consequences for it." 

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected] 

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