Meridian, Bosque County, Texas - County Attorney Natalie Koehler had a hell of a Monday morning.
She hit the office a half hour early after the long weekend to start reading e-mails, and found two of the top law enforcement officers in the area had dumped a red hot potato in her lap involving the willful withholding of public information regarding a jail house death that took place on May 4.
At 4 p.m., she said plaintively, “And I still haven't even seen the request!” It looks like somebody didn't exactly put her in the loop.
Local authorities invited Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield to investigate the mysterious death of April Troyn, a 36-year-old Clifton woman jailed on May 2 for a child endangerment charge stemming from a December complaint. A Clifton police detective swore out a warrant for her arrest in February, which he effected on May 2, five months later. One may read about the case by clicking here. (click here)
Because of the investigation, Sheriff Anthony Mallot and Clifton Chief ofPolice Steve Adcock have stonewalled all requests for what openrecords case law refers to as “police blotter” information. (click here) Those are the simple name, time of offense, place of offense kind of details that were known at the time an officer took a report or made an arrest – or both.
Since the matter is under investigation by an outside agency, they havediverted requests for basic information such as the decedent'saddress and the date she was booked into the jail. (click here) Asked in late May for an offense and arrest report, Chief Adcock replied, “Oh, we haven't done that yet.”
He also said that we would have to wait the 10-day period out, and added, “I think those people over at the Sheriff's Department screwed up, is what I think.”
Could be. Could be.
He insisted that police agencies have a 10-day period in which to seek an opinion of the State Attorney General. He was adamantine and intractable, to say the least.
Not true. According to AG Opinion No. 664 handed down by then-Attorney General John Cornyn in 2000, most crime information regarding offenses and arrests should be handed over “promptly,” meaning immediately.
One need only click here to read the entire opinion. https://www.oag.state.tx.us/opinions/openrecords/49cornyn/ord/2000/htm/ord20000664.htm
Mr. Cornyn, who is now the senior U.S. Senator from Texas, wrote this:
S U M M A R Y
A governmental body must release public information not excepted from required disclosure under the Public Information Act promptly. The prompt release of information requires release as soon as possible under the circumstances, that is, within a reasonable time, without delay. Section 552.221(d) does not entitle a governmental body automatically to withhold for ten business days public information not excepted from disclosure.
When a governmental body cannot produce requested information within ten business days of receipt of the request for the information, the public information officer must certify that fact in writing to the requestor and set a date and hour within a reasonable time when the information will be available. If public information is not available because it is in immediate active use or storage, the public information officer must certify that fact in writing to the requestor and set a date and hour within a reasonable time when the information will be made available.
Yours very truly,JOHN CORNYN, Attorney General of Texas
That's not how things work in Bosque County.
Police and clerical staff who serve as custodians of record of public information present a hostile, menacing affect when approached with requests for information. Imagine that.
And then the 300-pound gorilla landed on Ms. Koehler's desk, bright and early Monday morning.
Randall Scott Gates, a former investigator for the McLennan County Sheriff's Office and presently a reserve police officer, has acquired a minor education in the ins and outs of Section 552 of the Texas Government Code, which governs what is and is not fit for the public to know. Cops far and wide have lost creative urination contests – and the guy does this kind of thing in his off hours.
Having pressed his request for a couple of months, he had earlier delivered an ultimatum on one of the hectic days leading up to the holiday weekend:
July 2, 9:49 a.m.
“Did I just run into an odd series of events or is it common for public officials in Bosque County to display both contempt for the law and citizens?
“Please advise what I need to do to fix this. I believe both the Sheriff and Chief are guilty of Official Misconduct for failing to provide access to public information. I am painfully aware that in many places in Texas, public officials are considered above the law and not subject to prosecution. I am also aware that if I had a few beers and was stopped by the Sheriff or Chief and my only response was to insist they call my attorney, it would not end well for me. Both DWI and Official Misconduct are “B” misdemeanors.”
He sent a more strongly worded message on Monday morning:
I have alleged criminal conduct by the Chief of Police of the City of Clifton. I am aware you are not the City Attorney but you do have jurisdiction. Please advise if I need to file an official complaint pursuant to Sec. 552.3215 of the Texas Public Information Act or which agency I need to contact to file a complaint. If you believe the Texas Rangers are the proper investigative agency, please provide the contact information.
8:33 a.m. 7/8/13
“Mr. Gates, I am not the city attorney for the City of Clifton. I believe Mr. Tony Silas is the city attorney. If you have a problem with an open records request from them, you will need to speak to him.
“As for the Sheriff’s office, if you are requesting information on a case that is currently under investigation, then the open records request will not be granted until the investigation is complete. If you are requesting information on the Troyn case, you will need to contact the Texas Rangers who are handling this investigation.”
In the space of one short hour, something happened. Perhaps a clue is that Ms. Koehler said in a late afternoon interview that she has been in touch with the legal staff at the Texas Association of Counties. Who knows? Whatever happened, it sure changed her tune.
9:32 a.m. 7/8/13
“Mr. Gates, I have reviewed your request and visited with my secretary further about your request. I will instruct the Sheriffs office to turn over documents to you if you can send me a specific list of what you would like.
Having made no request for an opinion from the Attorney General's office, the stonewalling became what could be ruled as obstructionist by a finder of fact, official misconduct, which is a crime on an equal footing with DWI – a class B misdemeanor. Both offenses involve official misconduct, and that can cost a law license, peace officer's certification, time in the slammer, a hefty fine, probation – and – oh, you know, anger management courses. Who knows?
When a Mrs. Wilson, who is custodian of record at the Bosque County Sheriff's Department, finally handed over the information at 4:30 p.m. after demanding a money order for $2.00, she complained that she could not read the abbreviation for James W. Parks – Jas. W. Parks – as written on the document. Tricky and inscrutable trick invented by little old men in eye shades wielding steel nibs and wearing sleeve protectors in drafty old scriveners' offices in London, Paris, Rome, and, of course, Okeechobee.
I tried to hand her my driver's license, and she fairly shouted, “Hey! You don't have to give me your attitude! I don't need that!”
My reply, “Well, ma'am, I didn't give you my attitude. I gave you my driver's license.” Got my name wrote out on it entire, just what mama named me on that fateful day in 1949, back in Big D. Little A. Double-L...
The records thus obtained are the simple notations of the time April Troyn was booked into the jail on May 2, the names of the officers who searched her, processed her paperwork, and the Justice of the Peace who read her Miranda Warning.
The laconic notation for May 4 reads, simply, that her release was obtained when she was found deceased in a cell.
Obtained in May from Justice Court Precinct 2 with no hassle were the affidavit of probable cause, the warrant and the return of service on the arrest warrant.
More to come. Watch these columns.