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Public On Short End of 'Sunshine Law' With Chesterfield Courts and Police

Obtaining DWI-accident reports/arrest records can cost time and money when Chesterfield apparently wants to hide those—while state law says it's hassle-free.

I filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office about Chesterfield refusing to release a 2011 arrest report, incident and accident reports of ex-sports announcer Dan McLaughlin, as required by state law. McLaughlin was arrested DWI in Chesterfield, twice.

I hired a lawyer to represent me and possibly file suit in circuit court to force the Chesterfield police department to obey the state's Sunshine Law. (This law upholds the public's right to participate in the public's business, and see its documents—without cost or hassle.)

I didn’t hire just any attorney, but one who for 30 years was a city attorney for a number of county municipalities. He also just retired after serving a quarter of a century as the city judge in Kirkwood.

Chesterfield is taking a somewhat odd stand here. I have requested similar reports of accidents and DWI arrests from neighboring Town and Country police for an online newsletter I write, and was immediately given the reports. I have spoken to two people at the state Attorney General’s Office and they have agreed that under the law, Chesterfield owes me some reports.

“People have the right to know what is happening in their neighborhoods,” said Tom Durken of the AG’s office.

“They should be giving you three reports,” said Brenda Siegler, a Sunshine Law compliance lawyer at the AG’s office, who confirmed accident reports, arrest reports and incident reports, including DWI reports, are public record.   

The long and the short of this is, I’m not making any money for this column or my next one. Patch pays me for the columns, but I have already spent the money to hire a lawyer to get the City of Chesterfield to obey a clear-cut state law. 

Now here is how I got to this point.    

I was a police dispatcher in West County until I went to the police academy in 1974. Later as a detective sergeant I was a media officer for another local police department. (A media officer deals with the public, and public record.)

For 20 or more years it was a regular daily routine that the "beat reporter" for both the Post-Dispatch and the Globe Democrat would make their “call-arounds” of all the local police departments, asking if there was any news.

Believe it or not, we would actually tell them if there was anything newsworthy or if anyone of interest had just been arrested. It was usually pretty quiet, so if something did happen, we were happy to share it.

Those days have been over for more than 30 years now. Police departments normally don’t want anyone to know what is going on—unless it will be good for their public relations or help them crack a case.

To keep police records open to the public and press, the Missouri Sunshine Law was passed. The law deals with open meetings and public records. It has a large section on police records. The law (RSMo 610.100 to 610.150) was created to keep state, county and local governments from hiding public information or making it ridiculously hard to obtain. It is patterned after the Federal Freedom of Information Act, which was passed after the Watergate break-in and cover-up that brought down President Richard Nixon's administration.

The Sunshine Law states that all arrest records are open and all incident reports, crime and traffic accidents are open records. There are some exceptions, including reports involving on-going investigations.

When I first heard about Dan McLaughlin’s second DWI arrest by the Chesterfield police, I was on vacation. At 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 30, after several hours driving south on California Highway 1 toward San Francisco, my wife and I stopped at Stinson Beach Public Library to get on the internet and check our email. 

I checked Patch to see if anyone was commenting on my weekly opinion column (they weren’t) and to check the home page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at StLtoday.com. I saw the story by Jennifer Mann on the second arrest of then-Cardinals broadcaster Dan McLaughlin.

I thought it a little strange that the story was first appearing five days after the arrest which occurred on Sunday night, Sept. 25.

The Chesterfield police did not let the public know about the second McLauglin DWI arrest. Mann would later tell me she got a tip about it. I have no idea where her tip came from, but if I had to bet, I’d guess it was a Chesterfield cop. The Chesterfield police also refused to give any reports on the incident to the Post-Dispatch.

After vacation, I began exchanging emails with Lt. Steve Lewis, the media officer with the Chesterfield police about getting a copy of the latest police DWI and accident report. Here is the first exchange which set a pattern.

October 6, 2011

TO:  Steve Lewis

Ref Records Request

 Steve,

What are the chances of getting copies of the accident report and DWI report on Dan Mclaughlin for a Oct 17 column?

John Hoffmann

October 6, 2011

To:  John Hoffmann

John,

We are not in a position to release those documents, it is up to the prosecutor and the courts whether they are willing to release the information. Those are still investigative however and I doubt that we will release them in general until the case has been adjudicated. You may contact the court 636-537-4000 and ask for Prosecuting Attorney Tim Engelmeyer for further.

As I mentioned in my last column, I am not an outside observer in these matters. I know darn well there is no further continuing investigation into the second DWI arrest of Dan McLaughlin. I know when the arresting officer turned in his reports and McLaughlin was released on bail that was the end of any investigation.  

I used to have the operation of police records room under my command and know you can pretty much release what you want to. I was a cop, a police supervisor and an assistant police chief. I have made about 350 DWI arrests and reviewed hundreds more.

Rather than have informal emails going back and forth with the Chesterfield police, on Friday Oct. 7, I hand-delivered two record requests to the department. One was for the arrest, DWI incident and accident report involving Dan McLaughlin in September 2011. The other was for the police report involving McLaughlin’s DWI arrest in August 2010.

By this time, I had been passed down the chain of command from Lt. Lewis to Sgt. Bob Schneider. I was told that I would not receive any of the reports from the 2011 arrest as the department was not “required to share those reports with me.”  I would get a copy of the 2010 arrest.

Bob Schneider and I had worked together on the same shift for a West County police department 31 years ago. There were several memorable calls and arrests that Bob and I worked together. I didn’t feel like arguing with him over how I felt he was breaking the law. I told him I’d come back for the 2010 report.

Before leaving City Hall I went down to the municipal court and asked to see the 2010 DWI case against McLaughlin. I filled out a form and then was told I would be called if I could review the case.

I immediately asked the clerk what she meant “if I could review the case.”  I was told the case inactive and the judge had to approve someone reviewing it.

I returned on Monday to pick up the 2010 police report and again stopped by the court office. I was told the clerk had not heard back from the judge. I asked again why she needed the judge’s permission to show a public record to the public.

I was told the “judge wants to know who is requesting to look at files and he wants to be sure we do our job right.”

I eventually got a copy of the court documents and quickly realized why the judge or the prosecutor probably didn’t want anyone to see the file.

On the night of his arrest in 2010, McLaughlin was falling down drunk, had slurred speech, offered a bribe to the officer to drive him home, refused to take a breath test and then refused to sign the citation.

On the DWI charge he was given a 2-year suspended imposition of sentence (SIS) with no conditions, such as doing community service, attending a driver improvement school, or attending a DWI Victim’s Impact Panel. McLaughlin was required to do nothing and got a probation that would keep his driving record clear of any hint of a DWI guilty plea.

The charge of Failure to Drive in a Lane (weaving) was reduced to ILLEGAL PARKING and he was fined $350 and $26.50 in court costs.

This means the Chesterfield prosecuting attorney and judge agreed to a deal where an admitted drunk driver who refused to take a breath test would not get even one-point on his driving record.

If you or I got a 41mph speeding ticket in a 30mph zone and simply mailed it in, we would have a far worse driving record than McLaughlin, who in 2010 was driving a large SUV while very drunk, weaving on Highway 40 and when stopped, offered a bribe to the officer and then refused to take a breath test.       

This just reinforces my call for the city council and mayor to do something now and replace the city judge and prosecutor.  

Roger Weaver October 18, 2011 at 02:30 AM
John, you are just the latest in a long line of bloggers who create your own story to try to get readership. It's embarrassing that you are allowed to do so without repercussions but that is the society we live in. Ethics and morals be damned ... You need people to read your trumped up stories. I didn't realize you have a long standing history of judicial review and thus are in any kind of a position to tell people what is a fair sentence and what is not. I didn't realize your robust work as a lawyer put you in position to write an opinionated conclusion on legal proceedings. It's embarrassing that the patch actually might pay you for this drivel. Are you going to write a follow up piece on all the other dwi cases in st. Louis that have been settled with the exact same sentence? Are you going to write a follow up on your frivolous lawsuit with regards to the sunshine law? Or your clear misrepresentation of the sunshine law? I doubt it ... But hey maybe you got a couple of people to read you blog right?? Oh and out of your 350 dwi's how many of them were met with jail time or anything resembling the standards with which you are trying to hold others to? Odd that didn't make into your blog.
Jean Whitney October 18, 2011 at 05:32 AM
Roger, you are welcome to write a piece for Patch with the factual information you allude to.
LAlaland May 22, 2012 at 05:18 PM
Their needs to be a much higher liability involved and accountability in response to the sunshine law. How dare the author of this bring that to the light.John I read your comment and it was certainly alot of words for having said nothing.What drivel.This is not about DWIS its about accountabilty.Are you a clan member or something?

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