Updated with response from Jennifer Joyce.
The Missouri Court of Appeals has ordered the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to release some of the internal documents of an investigation into the misuse of 2006 World Series tickets.
"Missouri has a right to require its government agencies to be transparent, and the public has a right to know what's being done in its name when it comes to investigating misconduct by government employees," said Tony Rothert, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. "Really, what the police officers involved in this case were arguing for was a special right to privacy."
Tuesday's ruling is the latest in a long-running legal battle over the reach of the Missouri Sunshine Law. Judge Lawrence Mooney, along with judges Angela Quigless and Mary Hoff, are the latest to rule that records of an internal police investigation are public documents under the Sunshine Law and therefore subject to release.
A tangled history
The case began in 2006, when officers who had seized tickets from scalpers outside Busch Stadium used the tickets to attend games themselves, or allowed family members and friends to use the tickets. The department would discipline 16 officers and other department employees, with punishments ranging from written reprimands to suspensions and demotions. No one was ever charged criminally.
In April 2007, John Chasnoff, a member of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, sued under the Missouri Sunshine Law to gain access to the records of the internal investigation. A judge ruled in 2009 and again in 2010 that the records were subject to release under the law. Thirty-five officers who were interviewed as part of the investigation were eventually allowed to file a separate case asserting that the release of the records violated their constitutional right to privacy.
Judge Robert Dierker ruled in 2014 that the officer's assumptions that the records would be kept private did not trump the principle laid out in the Missouri Sunshine Law that documents generated by a public body must be kept open. Mooney, Quigless and Hoff heard oral arguments on the case in late February.
Latest appeals court ruling
Judge Mooney's opinion closely mirrors Dierker's. It rejects all of the ways officers claimed the records should be kept private.
- Garrity privileges
The officers questioned as part of the investigation all signed an "advice of rights form," an Internal Affairs Division document that makes it clear that officers can be punished for failing to answer IAD questions. Police officers can be compelled to make self-incriminating statements in internal investigations -- but those so-called "Garrity statements" cannot be used in criminal investigations. Nothing in the form promises that the documents will not be released to the public.
"Garrity recognizes no constitutional right to prevent disclosure to the public of such statements under an open records law," Mooney wrote. "A belief that the statements were for internal use by the police department, and not for criminal prosecutions, does not equate to a promise of secrecy."
- Constitutional protections
Mooney also rejected the arguments of the officers that the ability of personnel records to be exempted under the state open records law extends a constitutional right to privacy even outside of a sunshine law case.
"The trial court concluded that 'information regarding a police officer's performance of official duties, including discipline imposed for misconduct involving civilians, is not a personal matter subject to constitutional protection.' We agree." (Emphasis in original)
The officers cannot prove the documents contain any personal information, Mooney wrote.
- Common law protections
Police officers also cannot claim protection under a right to privacy created by past Missouri court rulings, Mooney wrote. That common-law tort requires that the material in question has to be "of a private matters in which the public has no legitimate concern," he said.
"Here, the police officers' misconduct in the performance of their official duties is undoubtedly a matter in which the public has a legitimate interest."
The officers can't point to any state law that would block the release of the records, Mooney wrote. Even the Sunshine Law allows for documents to be kept secret, but does not compel the records to be kept secret.
The records, which are in the custody of Judge Dierker, will not be released immediately. Attorneys for the police officers have 20 days to ask the Missouri Supreme Court to consider the case. There's no timeline for the Supreme Court to act, and the records are unlikely to be released until it does.
Anthony Rothert, of the ACLU of Missouri, said he hopes the ruling changes the way circuit attorney Jennifer Joyce deals with allegations of police misconduct.
"The office has always taken the position that it can't look at IAD records under any circumstances, and that prevents the prosecutor's office from seeing information that might exonerate a defendant, and from seeing information that might suggest there should be criminal charges against a police officer," Rothert said.
A spokeswoman for Joyce said the office is reviewing Tuesday's opinion, and that the officer's conduct had been disappointing.
"What they did was morally and ethically wrong, and those officers breached the trust of the community they serve," the statement said. "Ms. Joyce also believes their conduct does not represent the majority of the men and women of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department."
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann