Today the 5th District Court of Appeals (DCA) rendered a unanimous decision in Robert Scott Chandler v. The City of Sanford that once again vindicated the public’s “right to know.”
My brother and colleague Robert Chandler filed the case after the City of Sanford Police Department refused to produce a non-exempt public record. The record was George Zimmerman’s email address. The Sanford PD received Zimmerman’s email address long before the Treyvon Martin killing.
The Sanford PD claimed to have transferred the record to the Special Prosecutor in Duval County. The Special Prosecutor then refused to produce the record and directed the Sanford PD to refuse to produce the records as well.
Today’s decision by the 5th DCA is a resounding admonition to the custodians of public records that the courts have little patients for shenanigans when it comes to public records access. For example:
The Florida Constitution requires that the public have full access to public records, which includes any “public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body, officer, or employee of the state.” Art. I, § 24, Fla. Const. This constitutional right of public access to government records is “virtually unfettered” save for certain constitutional and statutory exemptions. Rameses, Inc. v. Demings, 29 So. 3d 418, 421 (Fla. 5th DCA 201 0). As repeatedly recognized by this court and others, courts must construe the public records law “liberally in favor of openness and any exemptions from disclosure are construed narrowly and limited to their designated purpose.” /d.; Nat’/ Collegiate Athletic Ass’n v. Associated Press, 18 So. 3d 1201, 1206 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009) (“The right to inspect a public record in Florida is not one that is merely established by legislation, it is a right demanded by the people …. Florida courts construe the public records law liberally in favor of the state’s policy of open government.”); see also Lightboume v. McCollum, 969 So. 2d 326 (Fla. 2007); WFTV, Inc. v. Sch. Bd. of Seminole, 874 So. 2d 48, 53 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004); City of Riviera Beach v. Barfield, 642 So. 2d 1135, 1136 (Fla. 4th DCA 1994).
Given the aggressive nature of the public’s right to inspect and duplicate public records, a governmental agency may not avoid a public records request by transferring custody of its records to another agency. See Tober v. Sanchez, 417 So. 2d 1053, 1054 (Fla. 3d DCA 1982).
While the court is sympathetic that the City was placed between a proverbial “rock and a hard place,” the City cannot be relieved of its legal responsibility for the public records by transferring the records to another agency.
The 5th DCA vacated the trial court’s dismissal and remanded the matter back to the circuit court for further proceedings. In addition to the unequivocal findings of the 5th DCA there are several other takeaways for public agencies.
First, Robert argued the case before the trial court with skill and aplomb. This was not his first rodeo and neither he nor I file cases that are without merit.
Second, while Robert filed the case Pro Se, he was represented in the appeal by the finest open government litigators in the State of Florida, Thomas & LoCicero. As I have noted many times before, our legal resources far exceed our economic resources.
Third, on the rare occasions when we have a bad day in the trial court (we’ve won more than 98% of our cases at the trial level) we will appeal. Count on it.
The citizens of Florida elevated the public’s “right to know” to constitutional status in 1992 by the largest super-majority in state history (87%). It’s a right worth defending and we’re utterly committed to doing so.
Compliance is much less expensive than litigation. But for those agencies that are determined to disrespect the public’s “right to know” and would prefer to litigate, we’re only too happy to oblige.