Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Time to reverse Texas' recent open records trends

Grits didn't get the chance to attend Monday's Senate hearing on open records issues, and indeed only two senators showed up to hear public testimony. But I thought it worthwhile to round up coverage of the event nonetheless:
Notably, a number of these articles claim Texas' open records law is one of the strongest in the country, and 20 years ago Grits would have agreed with that statement. Since then, however, access to records in the two areas about which the public most frequently requests information - government contractors and law enforcement - has been gutted by the Legislature, the courts, and a string of state Attorneys General who have consistently narrowed the act since Jim Mattox left office.

For about 20-25 years after the Sharpstown Bank scandal - the corruption episode which first spawned Texas' open records and open meetings acts - Texas did indeed have arguably the strongest open records law in the nation. Experts debated whether Texas or Florida had the stronger statute, but a legitimate case could be made for both. Today, no one could claim with a straight face that Texas' open records law holds a candle to Florida's, and there hasn't been an effective legislative champion for greater openness since around the time the Southwest Conference closed up shop.

With so few senators attending Monday's committee hearing, it's hard to judge legislative attitudes toward the issues raised there. (Regrettably, it sounds as though the Swiss-cheese-like law enforcement exception was barely discussed, if at all, though state Rep. Harold Dutton has filed a bill to reinstate the stronger, older standard for law enforcement disclosure.) Certainly, though, if the Legislature is going to take up open records questions next year, their goal should be to give the public more information, not to protect government and its agents from scrutiny.

11 comments:

John cokos said...

This is a issue that is National in scope. In New Jersey there is a complete overhaul in the OPRA Act, Open Public Records Act, to put teeth into enforcement of the Act. The GRC, the Government Records Council, which oversee's the enforcement of the act is the biggest culprit in the logjam that rules's in favor of the very agencies that don't comply. Texas is not alone in this problem. In the Information Age, lack of information is a serious hadicap.

http://radiofreenewjersey.squarespace.com/storage/radiofreenewjersey.html
I have some coverage on this on my website.

Anonymous said...

When dealing with law enforcement open records request in this country, and especially in this state, there is a well placed and well designed brick wall of ‘smoke and mirrors’.
Since I started working with families of those innocent persons who are in prison paying for crimes they did not commit, I have discovered that most of the ‘open records’ request I submit are returned:
1. Sanitized – in other words the written accounts of the arrest such as: arrest reports, evidence reports, police procedure during investigation, district attorney investigations and decisions etc. have been cleaned up and portray the arresting officers and district attorneys and adhering to the letter of the law. When in light of DNA results (usually after years of the innocent person languishing in prison) that prove a person’s innocence, the police and DA continue to maintain their actions were completely legal. *
2. Redacted – the entire document is blacked out
3. Refusal to release – department heads of chiefs and/or sheriff’s simply refuse to obey the ‘open record’ request.
Don’t kid yourself, all the ‘open record’ request legislation is of little or no good to the daily grind of uncovering the truth.
*Note: The US Constitution, most State Penal Codes, Code of Criminal Procedure, and all the other codes that guide and govern police officer and district attorney behavior are good, and structurally sound. If the arresting officers and district attorneys adhere to the codes, the possibility of an innocent person being arrested and convicted are little or none. Trouble for the innocent person begins when police and prosecutors bend/disregard the code rules to suit themselves. Witness the prior 300+ exonerated persons who were imprisoned due to prosecutorial and police misconduct.
Former Dallas Police Officer
Former TCLEOSE instructor

SEMPERFINE said...

Scott:
Off topic, but in the same First Amendment ball park;
I have recently had an incredibly frustrating experience with Mugshots.com, and Busted.com over the removal from their data bases of people found innocent, or had their criminal cases dismissed.
Regardless of the outcome of the case, both of these "Entities", using the First Amendment, refuse to remove or "Unpublish" pictures and case descriptions from their databases unless the fee of around $400.00 is paid up front. Unless the fee is paid, the arrests and photos still appear on Google and other search engines. Mugshots is based in South Florida, and Busted is based in Texas.
What are your thoughts in this area; and how about opening it up for comment.

Hook Em Horns said...

ANON 09:04 is on the money.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:04, I would argue that before 1996 when the Texas Supreme Court ruled in Holmes v. Morales, the Open Records Act was MUCH stronger on law enforcement records and a truly useful tool. Today, you're right, it's basically been gutted. That's why I dislike seeing reporters say Texas has one of the nation's strongest laws: That used to be true, pero no mas.

Semperfine (Andy, is that you?), IANAL, but my first thought is that once somebody has been proven innocent or charges have been dismissed, keeping their mugshot online with commentary saying they're accused of a crime is probably per se libel. And charging $400 to take it down compounds the tort, IMO bordering on extortion. ("Pay me or I'll say false, disparaging things about you online.") Somebody may have to sue to make them stop, but if they did, I wouldn't be surprised to see them seriously cash in.

SEMPERFINE said...

Scott:
No, it not Andy. Andy couldn't have made it past Webelos, let alone the United States Marine Corps.
The situation involving Busted, Mogshots, and for that matter, Publicdata.com is that they rely solely on public records, so that's their defense.
It is a form of extortion, but it may take legislation to get past the First Amendment threshold.
Just FYI.

TheTruthExposers said...

We are constantly stonewalled by law enforcement agencies all over the country when trying to assemble information for the cases we cover.

While Texas is almost impossible, even states where democrats have made the laws governing open records requests like California have proven to be downright difficult if not impossible.

Law enforcement use the clout of their unions to lobby legislators all across the country. We have been harassed and even threatened with legal action for just making FOI requests.

When you operate an organization that tries to spotlight crimes committed by police you really get an opportunity to see first-hand the lowdown thuggery, outright criminal attitudes and blatant disrespect for the law that many in law enforcement seem to have.

Yet, we still manage to track many of the cases and are still around to inform and educate parents about the dangerous child predators that choose to hide behind a badge: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tribute-to-survivors-of-child-sexual-assault-by-law-enforcement-officers/180584842010594?sk=wall

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, folks really don’t know the true value of ‘Records’ until it involves them directly. Ironically purchasing arrest(s) Incident Report(s) & certified case files 'Records' is a requirement here in the great state of confusion aka: Texas, when a human decides to seek & apply for a Full Pardon - based on innocence.

After purchasing my first batch in 98, and discovering that not only did it show I was not guilty, it revealed a step by step outline of the HPD Detectives' in action as they caught gross description discrepancies’ after a line-up just produced a "Positive" ID. It is very obvious that the ‘Records’ I purchased were never meant to be in my possession.

For some reason, the detective (Mr. John W. Clinton) is shown rightfully confronting the robbery victim and blatantly assisting him in the art of making the description fit. Straight Black Hair is now Wavy Brown, no facial hair is now a mustache, Black hair is now Blond & so on, with charges sought and taken out. Despite providing the goofballs in the 'Clemency Section" w/ this, no -DNA? Go-Away with One vote for.

The second batch purchased in 01 revealed additional pages of the so-called entire certified case file showing the ADA (Mr. Casey J. O’Brien aka: jigmeister) created two separate State' Exhibits' Docs., dated 7 yrs. apart with three number Two's in all. One of the Two's was a mystery gun having no chain of custody 'Records' showing where in the hell he obtained it from, where it was stored at or the method & location of its destruction. The HPD & H.C. Sherriff’s Office don’t’ have any ‘Records’ and can’t show me any charges relating to it. WTF?

The point of explaining this is to show folks that it's very important that we the friggin people have the right to obtain 'Records'. Despite my batches alone being overwhelming proof of; police, prosecutorial, defense & judge misconduct and with the loopholes / hurdles set in place at the Post Conviction Relief arena, I have purchased 100%friggin proof of a false arrest that was allowed to morph into a wrongful conviction via the utilization of an un-necessary plea bargain. A one of a kind plea, that took place in the judge's chambers aka: the Griffith Plea. We must fight for right to obtain any & all 'Records', despite their ability to draft them the way they see fit. In my case, I wish to thank the person that wrote down what these MOFOS did as they did it and encourage others to seek their 'Records' now before they just disappear. Thanks.

NOTE: If they refuse to allow you access to your ‘Records’ or choose not to right your wrong due to the type of evidence, you can simply go-away or make your own ‘Records’. When these bastards’ children Google their names’ for Show-In-Te ll, there will be ‘Records’ and they’ll be public. Just for hell of it, I send them & the crime victim copies including the Mugshot, every Christmas for their 'Records'.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, a quick question with a follow up regarding the utilizing the 'ACT'.

*Are you aware of the Attorney General Rule that prevents Full Pardon 'Applicant(s)' from being able to purchase copies of correspondence submitted to the TBP&P by the ADA of record (Retired & Current)?

When I called the Clemency Section asking how many Members voted on my behalf, I was told one voted in favor and that there was a letter from O'Brien with a smiley face in the margin. If I wanted copies I'd have to go thru the A.G. office. The A.G. replied that I was not allowed any due to seeking clemency. I wrote the C.S. and officially with drew my request(s) for the Full Pardon - based on innocence and the Regular Pardon and requested the banned copies again.

After 6 mos. of no reply and no return calls, I wrote the A.G. and they said they don't have to reply and "Closed" the Case. *With that, I also ask, is it possible for a real journalist / reporter to obtain copies of the Application including these secrete opposition letter(s) for an expose / documentary? Jigmeister can’t remember the case, the letter(s) or the difference between GRIFFITH and GRIFFIN. Thanks.

john said...

Police-state tactics. The video of your traffic stop will erase or disappear.
A couple years back, after being accosted by 3 cops from two cars (one showing the other, younger guys how to randomly harass folks, evidently), while three other cars of cops went into a motel; when I sent in a Request, the State passed it to the local attorney--who created a story they were after druggies, and named about three cops.
The other cars must've driven themselves.
Those in power mostly only care to remain in power. You can't make this stuff up.
How the Legislature could stop representing their constituents is sick, but maybe they followed the lead of the federal Representatives In Name Only.
The question is always the same: what are We The Poor People going to do about it?

Capcha--just two not-words

John Lucas said...

Interesting post. It will be interesting to see what this does for the future of Texas public records. Like John said, this is an issue that will inevitably have ripple effects nationwide, so it's worth paying attention to.