Aaron Malin (right) greets Jeff Mizanskey at the Audrain County Courthouse during the trial of his lawsuit against the East Central Drug Task Force in June 2016. Malin sued the group after he was barred from attending a meeting of its executive board. Photo by Robert Cohen.

 

Denying a St. Louis County man’s open records request will cost a mid-Missouri prosecutor’s office at least $36,000.

The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District on Tuesday upheld a lower court’s ruling that the Cole County prosecutor’s office broke state law when officials attempted to rebuff Aaron Malin’s request for records.

Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce ruled in October 2017 that then-Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson “knowingly and purposefully” violated the Sunshine Law in denying a request from Malin, a St. Louis County activist who recently graduated from the University of Denver’s law school.

The three-judge panel unanimously affirmed Joyce’s ruling.

​​Since 2014, Malin has filed hundreds of records requests with various drug task forces and other law enforcement agencies around the state, seeking information about how the agencies fight the war on drugs.

Malin asked the Cole County prosecutor’s office in 2015 for correspondence between the prosecutor and the area’s drug task force. He said Tuesday that, after a four-year legal battle, he expects the prosecutor’s office to produce the records in a matter of days.

“I’m thrilled,” Malin told the Post-Dispatch. “It’s really important that Missourians have access to open records. It’s really important that government officials are held accountable for violating the law.”

Richardson, Joyce wrote, acted “with full awareness of the consequences and conscious design to violate the law,” citing Richardson’s experiences as a licensed attorney and municipal court judge — including a class in which Richardson taught state agency officials how to respond to public records requests.

Joyce ruled that Richardson “intentionally refused” to provide the records or search for them, and that there was “no support” for Richardson’s claim that the records were closed under the law. She outlined seven distinct violations of the open records law Richardson made.

Joyce ordered Richardson to produce the records Malin requested and pay $12,100 in damages. Richardson was also ordered to pay Malin’s attorneys’ fees, which were $24,070, according to Tuesday’s ruling.

Judge Mark D. Pfeiffer on Tuesday wrote that the prosecutor’s office had not challenged the civil penalty or the attorney’s fees, or that the office “knowingly and purposefully” violated the law.

Instead, Pfeiffer wrote, the prosecutor’s office challenged the amount of the civil penalty and Joyce’s order to produce communications with the drug task force.

Malin said Tuesday that the prosecutor’s office is now on the hook for attorneys’ fees he accrued as the appeals court considered the case.

Locke Thompson, a Republican, defeated Richardson in the August primary. Thompson took office this month. Neither Richardson nor Thompson could immediately be reached for comment.

By Jack Suntrup | St. Louis Post Dispatch