Hennepin County violated state open records laws by failing to comply promptly with a request for information on the sheriff’s use of biometric technology, the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled in a case tracked by government watchdogs, law enforcement and the media.
In August 2015, open government crusader Tony Webster requested information about Sheriff Rich Stanek’s office use of high-tech tracking methods to identify faces, irises and fingerprints. Almost three years later, Webster still doesn’t have answers, but as of Wednesday, he had a victory from the state’s highest court.
The court faulted the county’s procedures for responding to records requests through the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. But the court declined to consider the question of whether government agencies can refuse data requests on the grounds they are too burdensome.
The seven justices agreed that previous court hearings and documents revealed “substantial evidence of the county’s missteps and failures in responding to Webster’s request at every juncture.”
After the ruling came out, Webster said, “It’s really hard to be happy when I’ve waited so long for data that is public,” adding that the public nature of the data was never in dispute. “The issue is they violated the law.”
Justice G. Barry Anderson wrote the 26-page majority opinion. Justice Margaret Chutich filed a separate three-page opinion, saying she agreed with the findings, but also would have weighed in on a third issue — the question of whether a request can be deemed too burdensome.
The dodging of the “burdensome” question caused the ruling to be met with a shrug from observers who awaited a key directive for the digital age.
First Amendment lawyer Mark Anfinson said the court’s decision isn’t significant. “This has been followed for years as a potentially important ruling dealing with the collection of electronic data and government agencies. Instead, it’s just a footnote,” he said.
Assistant county administrator for public safety Mark Thompson, who oversees Stanek’s office, said the county receives thousands of data practices requests a year. “We try to comply with all the data requests quickly in a reasonable time,” he said. “This particular request was large. We had to query seven million e-mails.”
Still, Thompson said the county has since streamlined procedures to respond more nimbly to requests.
Webster, a freelance software engineer, is a prodigious advocate for access to public documents and has won awards from journalism and open government groups.
His blog and Twitter feed provided exclusive information following the 2016 fatal shooting of Philando Castile by a police officer. Webster was the first to find and post video of Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, handcuffed in the back of a police car trying to console her young daughter.
Waiting since 2015
In the current Hennepin County matter, five months passed without resolution of his data request, so Webster filed a complaint with an administrative law judge in January 2016. In April 2016, Judge Jim Mortenson faulted the county for months of unexplained delays, improperly redacted records, inadequate answers and behavior by county officials.
He ordered the county to pay the maximum fine of $300 and almost $7,000 in attorney and filing fees. He also ordered the county to hand over millions of e-mails to Webster by June 1. But the judge’s order was stayed pending appeal.
In the county’s case, attorneys argued they were in compliance with state law because they had procedures and personnel to track requests. The court said the procedures were insufficient because they didn’t lead to a prompt response to Webster’s inquiry.
On a second point, the high court determined that the county had followed the legal requirement to “keep records containing government data in such an arrangement and condition as to make them easily accessible for convenient use.”
One question unanswered
The Supreme Court didn’t answer the question of whether a data request can be deemed too burdensome.
Matt Ehling, executive director of Public Record Media, a government transparency group, said watchdog and media organizations were concerned about the question. Had the court given governments the ability to say a request was too onerous, Ehling said that would have “gutted” open records laws.
The matter will now return to the administrative law judge, who is expected to direct the county to comply with the nearly three-year-old request.
The Star Tribune was among several media and government watchdog organizations that filed amicus briefs in support of Webster. Several government and law enforcement groups signed on to a brief in support of the county.