Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott says that the recent decision from the state Attorney General’s office that he likely violated the state’s Sunshine Law on requests from local Springfield media does not actually definitely say that he intentionally committed any violations of the law, just that it’s likely violations may have inadvertently taken place.
Arnott spoke with OI about the ruling from the AG’s office about requests made by the Springfield News-Leader over a video shot by a cameraman from the TV show “Live PD” showing the fatal deputy-involved shooting of a Springfield man and the names of suspects in a drug investigation.
“The Live PD video likely, since I had that video, I didn’t turn it over to [Live PD’s] attorney immediately because we had conflict of when we could get together, there was a gap there that [the AG’s office] said I would likely have to show [the News-Leader] the evidence that I have,” Arnott told OI. “That doesn’t mean I play the video, it means I have to show them the device it was on. It was a sim-card deal. Whether I had the right to play it is another question they didn’t get into because that wasn’t the case. The case was that I had to show them what I had.”
“Nobody got into the detail of that and it really doesn’t matter,” Arnott continued. “That’s why I said to the News-Leader that I really wouldn’t do anything different than I would immediately turn it over to [Live PD’s] attorney because that property belonged to them and there’s a copyright issue. And it was only seized as evidence under an investigative subpoena for the prosecutor to review. I wasn’t even able to keep a copy of it. That’s something I would have liked to have kept a copy of but I wasn’t able to keep a copy of it.”
“So it all boiled down to during that period of time if they had the right to view that piece of evidence, which was the sim-card. They could have but that doesn’t mean they could view the video on the actual device.”
That appears to be in conflict with a part of the AG’s response to the complaints filed against the Sheriff’s office that reads: “the Sunshine Law likely required the Sheriffs Office to provide access to the Live PD video for viewing in response to [News-Leader reporter] Bologna’s request, before it returned the video to a law firm representing Live PD. There is no indication the Sheriffs Office destroyed any pertinent record.”
Arnott noted that that paragraph appears out of context without a previous paragraph: ” The letter does not address, and thus does not extend to, other pieces of evidence that may be in law enforcement possession, such as physical evidence, password-protected media, or items that may be contained on or within a third· party’s personal records or belongings.”
Arnott says the Live PD card is a third-party’s belonging due to contract and thus the AG’s decision didn’t definitively say he had to show the video, only that it was likely he would have to do it should a formal ruling be handed down from a court.
“That’s why it was worded as likely,” Arnott said. “That’s why they didn’t say ‘this is what the Sheriff should have done.’ It’s just likely because we didn’t get to that next step of the card and whether they get to view what’s on it.”
Arnott cited another electronic device frequently seized by officers as reasoning for his decisions in this case.
“I basically used the same example as if we seized a cell phone and have it in evidence,” Arnott said. “The Sunshine Law doesn’t allow me just because I have that in evidence allow the media to come in and view what’s on the cell phone. They can view the cell phone depending on the circumstance, but they can’t go in and operate it. “
“I know that’s cutting hairs but that’s the way this works,” Arnott said. “That’s why it was worded the way it was done.”
On the issue of the complaint filed by News-Leader reporter Bologna regarding the names of people arrested in connection with a drug bust, Arnott said that names were initially withheld under a portion of the Sunshine Law that allows for protection of witnesses.
“The Sunshine Law allows us to not release some information if it puts [a witness or accused] in danger,” Arnott said. “When those people were no longer in jeopardy I released the names.”
“It was a timing issue and that’s why they said ‘likely’ because there were so many issues in it,” Arnott continued. “Sometimes I have to weight the danger of revealing the witness or the victim or sometimes even the suspect when we’re looking for more suspects.”
Arnott told OI that he has no problem with the Attorney General’s decision even though it found the News-Leader reporter’s “complaints to be substantiated.”
“I’m satisfied with the Attorney General’s decision,” Arnott said, “I don’t agree 100 percent but that doesn’t matter. It’s their opinion on it.”
“In talking to the attorney general’s office, they were very informative,” he continued, “they understood my issues and understood why I made the decisions I that I made, and they actually came to the determination that I didn’t do anything wrong. I wasn’t trying to skirt the Sunshine Law, I was trying to do the right thing, but they thought there were a couple grey areas in there. That’s why the report came back with nine pages and stated ‘likely.'”
He also noted the report stated “this letter does not constitute an official legal opinion of the Missouri Attorney General.”
Arnott said that the AG’s requirement of more Sunshine Law training is welcomed by the department.
“More Sunshine training is fine with me,” he said, “you can never have enough training regardless of the topic.”
The Attorney General’s letter is below:Sunshine-Law-GCSO