A long-running legal battle over whether records of internal St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department investigations are subject to Missouri's Sunshine Law will continue for possibly another six months.
Here's a timeline of the case:
- 2006 - Several officers are accused of using World Series tickets that had been seized from scalpers outside Busch Stadium
- April 18, 2007 - Internal and criminal investigations are closed. No criminal charges were filed, though eight officers and six other department officials were disciplined internally.
- April 20, 2007 - To comply with a public records request by John Chasnoff and the Citizens Against Police Crimes and Repression, the now-defunct St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners releases some documents, including a news release, the names of the officers disciplined, and the board vote. Chasnoff, seeking additional documents, sues on July 18, 2007.
- December 11, 2009 - Judge Philip Heagney rules that incident reports and investigative files are subject to disclosure under the Sunshine law.
- January 2010 - Commissioners appeal, arguing for the first time that there are two separate investigative files, and documents pertaining solely the investigation into whether officers and employees violated department protocol should be exempt.
- April 2010 - Judge Heagney again holds that the entire file must be turned over. The board decides not to appeal, but 35 individual officers who claim they would be negatively impacted by the release of the records are allowed to step in in June 2010. Chasnoff appeals that decision.
- July 14, 2010 - Judge Heagney halts the release of the documents.
- March 29, 2011 - Appeals court rejects the officers' request to intervene, but keeps Heagney's July 14 stay in place so the officers, in a separate case, can argue that their privacy would be violated by the release of the records.
- April 8, 2011 - The 35 officers file their own case in front of Judge Bryan Hettenbach. Chasnoff is granted the right to intervene on April 12.
- April 19, 2012 - The police board and officers present to Hettenbach a proposed consent decree that would permanently block the release of the records.
- January 25, 2013 - Over Chasnoff's objections, Hettenbach grants the consent decree - a ruling in direct conflict with Heagney's June 2010 ruling to release them. Heagney declines to enforce that ruling.
It was the job of the appeals court to sort out what happens when two judges issue polar opposite rulings in a case. Its decision? Give another judge six months to rule on the balance between the public's right to know and the officer's right to privacy.
In two opinions written by judge Sherri B. Sullivan and signed by judges Lawrence Mooney and Robert Dowd, the court said it disagreed with Heageny's decision not to enforce his earlier ruling, because the consent decree reached between the department and the officers "is not a judicial determination of rights."
"The reasoning set out in the Consent Judgment underlying the agreed-upon injunction is that the Plaintiff police officers have privacy and other rights justifying the records' closure. However, these rights were never adjudicated as intended by this Court ..."
The department will not have to release the records in that six-month window.
- Read the appeals ruling in the original case, Chasnoff vs. Mokwa, here.
- Read the appeals ruling in the officer's case, Ishmon vs. St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, here.
Both sides seemed pleased with the court's ruling.
"In this case, there was an end-run made around the Sunshine Act" in the form of the consent decree, said Jeffrey Mittman, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. "The appellate court clearly stated that that end run is not appropriate. We anticipate that six months from now, we will have a ruling that will allow us to review the records of improper police activity so that we can determine it doesn't happen again."
An attorney for the 35 police officers, Neil Bruntrager, joked that he had an "allergic" reaction to the ruling when it was issued.
"The procedural difficulties which have caused this case to go on and on and on are what I'm sick of," he said. "But the procedural matters are now in a position where if we are able to do what the Court of Appeals has directed us to do, we'll be in a position where we can line up all of these questions, get these issues before a court, and have a clear ruling that says here's where the interest of the public start and end, and here's where the privacy rights of the officers start and end."
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann