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Editorial: Port St. Lucie Police Department wrong to withhold public document

Editorial: Port St. Lucie Police Department wrong to withhold public document

It’s taken for granted that a law enforcement agency is careful not to violate laws itself. Such an assumption, though, doesn’t seem to hold true in the case of the Port St. Lucie Police Department and its (mis)handling of public records.

City residents should be outraged at department leaders’ continued failure to be transparent. Open records laws are designed to protect and inform the public and police officers are charged with upholding the law and keeping people safe.

The most recent failure — regrettably not the first — was the obstinate refusal by police spokesman Tom Nichols to release a standard arrest affidavit in connection with the recent murders of Frank Houck and Irene Reiss in their city home.

After a textbook bureaucratic runaround, Nichols ultimately claimed the affidavit contained sensitive information regarding the ongoing investigation and that other information would be released within a “reasonable” time. And, the department convinced the Sheriff’s Office to go along.

Only after Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers received the arrest information from the St. Lucie County Courthouse and made the information public did the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office release the arrest affidavits they possessed — more than 24 hours after the newspaper’s initial request and 32 hours after the arrest.

Florida law states, “Every person who has custody of a public record shall permit that record to be inspected and copied by any person desiring to do so, at any reasonable time, under reasonable conditions, and under supervision by the custodian of the public records.”

That’s AT a reasonable time, not IN a reasonable time, a point not lost on an attorney known for successfully litigating with agencies that thumb their noses at the public when it comes to open records and meetings.

“The statute does not say that the record must be produced in a reasonable time,” Jonathan D. Kaney Jr., general counsel for the First Amendment Foundation of Florida, said. “Insofar as the statute is concerned, the record must be produced immediately. … The courts have ruled that the record must be produced in no more time than it takes to locate the record and redact any confidential information.”

That would have been minutes after the request. But, that’s not what happened. Instead, the agencies acted in a fashion more befitting a banana republic, where people disappear— and arrest records may or may never be created or released.

“The conduct of these agencies cannot be condoned,” Kaney said. “They have a mandatory duty to comply with the public records law. If this conduct does not amount to an intentional violation, it is certainly a deplorable indifference to the law.”

The decision to release or not release information in this case ultimately was the responsibility of Port St. Lucie Police Chief Brian Reuther. If he or members of his staff are unfamiliar with Florida’s public records laws, they need to get familiar — now. Instances such as this open the door to potential legal action against the department and the city at a cost to taxpayers.

Sadly, this is not the first time the city, through Nichols, has delayed release to or withheld critical information from the public. If Reuther cannot control his charges, City Manager Jerry Bentrott should help him or find another police chief.

Meantime, Sheriff Ken Mascara should look into what happened in his agency. After all, he pays a general counsel, Adam Fetterman, to make the right call — not the one that covers up for another agency’s intransigence.

“The official who said the agency need only act within what it considers to be a reasonable time is flat wrong,” Kaney said.

There must be no more excuses.