Some Mississippi sheriffs keep public records under lock and key
By The Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. When it comes to the public's right to know, a statewide survey suggests a number of Mississippi sheriffs' departments are either ignorant of the law or have chosen to ignore it.
Of the 36 counties covered in a survey organized by the Associated Press, fewer than half fully complied when volunteers asked to see jail dockets and an arrest record both public under a 1983 state law.
"The first person I spoke with was persistent in trying to find out why I wanted the information. I was made to feel extremely uncomfortable," said Deidra Walters, a volunteer who visited the Jones County Sheriff's Department in Laurel.
Representatives of the department did not return phone calls for comment.
The AP, working with the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, the Mississippi Press Association, Common Cause and daily and weekly newspapers throughout the state, tested Mississippi's Public Records Act in 40 of the state's 82 counties on Nov. 14, 2001. Four counties were excluded from the survey results because of problems in the way information was gathered.
Most agencies readily complied with a request to see the jail docket, but 20 departments would not produce an arrest report.
Toni Terrett found the jail docket and arrest reports easily accessible at the Claiborne County Sheriff's Department in Port Gibson.
"My experience was real positive," said Terrett. "I went in assuming they would be real closed, but they were real open and friendly."
Claiborne County Sheriff Frank Davis said members of his staff attend conferences to make sure they understand the law.
"We know that records kept here are public records, and we make our records here readily accessible to the public," said Davis, who's been sheriff since 1979.
The 1983 Public Records Act includes both physical and electronic records. Anyone may request records and the act does not restrict the release of information for any specific purpose.
The news media and the public have equal right to government records, said Jackson attorney Leonard Van Slyke Jr., who also works for the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information.
However, officials in 12 counties told volunteers that at least part of the information they requested was not public record. And officials in four counties told volunteers they only gave information out to reporters or other "authorized personnel."
Fear of lawsuits combined with unfamiliarity with state law could make newly elected sheriffs reluctant to release information, said Bill Stacy, director of the Mississippi Sheriffs Association's Boys and Girls Ranch in Columbus.
Stacy organizes annual conferences for Mississippi sheriffs. Representatives of federal and state agencies present a variety of topics from laws to liability.
Newly elected Winston County Sheriff Randy Thomas said he hopes he'll be able to attend one such conference this summer. Until then, he is planning to talk to attorneys for suggestions.
"I don't know right now what information we can release," said Thomas, who was sworn in Nov. 27.
A Winston County clerk initially told volunteer Jennifer Helms she couldn't have the requested information.
"They just couldn't believe someone would walk in off the street and ask for something," Helms said. The clerk "did not know the jail docket was public record until she talked to her supervisor."
Thomas would not comment unless he was sent a written request for information he could review with his attorneys.
There are just two exemptions to the Public Records Act, allowing sheriffs to withhold information that could hamper an investigation or that could put victims or witnesses in danger, said Deputy Attorney General Mike Lanford.
Lanford said no state agency has authority to enforce the state's open-records law.
People may sue an agency that doesn't comply, he said. An agency found to have knowingly failed to obey the law may be fined $100 and ordered to pay plaintiffs' attorney's fees.
Some other states do have agencies that oversee access laws or allow active enforcement.
In New York, a committee is responsible for overseeing and advising about freedom of information laws. In Florida, an individual can file civil and criminal charges against a government agency that withholds public information.
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