Topics

 

  
 I. Where do I begin to research this story if it involves a governmental entity or court matter?

II. How do I avoid libeling someone in a story I am writing?  

III. Can I bring a camera into the courtroom?  

IV. Do reporters in Missouri have a shield law?

V. What documents of governmental bodies are open under Missouri's sunshine law?

 

I. Where do I begin to research this story if it involves a governmental entity or court matter?  

A. If it involves a governmental entity, most state or local governmental entities are organized and governed by provisions of Missouri state law. Federal entities operate according to federal laws. State courts and federal courts are separate entities governed by state or federal government court rules. (See below.) Entities created by state law generally must disclosure their operations under Missouri's state sunshine law. (See item V below.) Federal entities, however, are governed by the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. (See item V below.)

B. Is it a court matter?  

1. Missouri state courts: There are generally three levels of the Missouri state court system.

a. Where do cases start? The lowest level is the circuit courts. These include the cases actually heard by the circuit judge, the cases that filed before the associate circuit courts and/or probate courts (a sub-level of the circuit court) and municipal courts that exist in certain larger cities. Juvenile courts also hear cases, but those courts generally are closed to the public, as are juvenile case files. Many state agencies have administrative law courts that handle preliminary disputes on that level, but which can be appealed into the state court system.

b. Where do cases go from here? Appeals from these courts are generally filed with the Missouri Court of Appeals, and then certain cases may be heard before the Missouri Supreme Court. On certain rare occasions, cases may then be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

c. Who manages these files? Court clerks in each of these courts manage cases filed there.

d. How do criminal cases proceed? There should be a warrant for an arrest or the person maybe held by law enforcement for 24 hours without a warrant. A summons may have been issued and eventually the prosecutor should file a complaint against the defendant, unless no charges are being brought. Where the case is heard and the process used in the trial depends in part on the seriousness of the charges being brought. Criminal proceedings in court and the case files are generally open to the public. Grand jury proceedings are closed and different than regular criminal proceedings. Forms for criminal proceedings and more detailed explanations about the criminal process are contained in Section III in the handbook.

e. How do civil cases proceed? A civil lawsuit generally involves two or more parties with a dispute. It generally begins with the "plaintiffs" filing a lawsuit against a "defendant" or defendants, setting out the basic allegations and seeking damages or for the court to enforce a desired result. All civil court files generally are open records. While discovery undertaken by lawyers generally is not included in the court file, the trial of the lawsuit generally is open to the public. Discovery is court-empowered fact-gathering. Where no protective order is in place, a lawyer may be willing to share facts gathered from discovery.

2. Federal courts in Missouri: The federal court system has a similar three-tier system, beginning at the federal district court level, with appeals to the appellate court and then to the U. S. Supreme Court. Federal agencies similarly handle disputes from agency rulings in an administrative process before proceeding to the federal district or appellate court levels. The federal bankruptcy court system operates separately from the district court system. Again, court clerks manage files of cases in each court system.

C. Is there a state law that tells me about the matter I am writing about? Missouri's laws are contained in the Missouri statutes, which are available online at http://www.moga.state.mo.us/homestat.asp. Other sources for state rules are the Code of State Regulations and proposed rules published in the Missouri Register.

II. How do I avoid libeling someone in a story I am writing?  

A. What must a person prove when claiming I have libeled them? The person claiming libel must prove a false statement of fact made about them, must prove they were damaged by the statement, and must prove some degree of fault on the part of the reporter. If the individual is a "public figure" or a "public official" as those terms have been used by the U.S. Supreme Court, then they must also prove what the supreme court has termed "actual malice," which means "known falsity or reckless disregard of the truth." If the individual doesn't fall into this category, then they only need prove the statements were made "negligently" by the reporter.

B. How can I avoid libeling someone? In all cases, it is a good idea to have the story reviewed by the company's attorney if there is any question about this issue. It is helpful, however, if the reporter can demonstrate the truth of the statement being made from an official record, such as a court record, or if the statement was made in another official setting, such as a legislative session or a city council meeting. The issues, however, that apply to defenses are technical and a lawyer's advice is helpful in making these determinations.

III. Can I bring a camera into the courtroom?  

Yes. Missouri Supreme Court Administrative Rule 16 opened the door for cameras to be brought into the courtroom under specific provisions. Each court circuit has a media coordinator who must make these arrangements, as this access requires prior consent by the court. The circuit court clerk should be able to identify who should be contacted to make these arrangements.

IV. Do reporters in Missouri have a shield law?  

Missouri has no statutory shield law. However, when a reporter is subpoenaed to give evidence in a criminal case, courts have ruled that there is some minimum requirement that a court determine if the information sought is material and relevant, if it cannot be secured by any less intrusive means and if its disclosure is essential to protect the public's interest and if there is a legitimate need to see and otherwise use it. The privilege in Missouri is weaker than that in states in which a shield law has been enacted.

V. What documents of governmental bodies are open under Missouri's sunshine law? The provisions of Chapter 610, Missouri Revised Statutes, govern what records and meetings are open.

A. How do I know if the entity I am covering is subject to the sunshine law? The provisions of R.S.Mo. 610.010 (4) define what constitutes a "public governmental body" and any entity that falls within that definition must follow the state sunshine law. Generally, any body that is created by state statute or any political subdivision of a state, county, city or other municipal government. Also included in this lengthy, detailed definition, among other entities, are certain special purpose districts or any committee appointed by a public governmental body that reports back to that body. Another subcategory of public governmental bodies are "quasi" bodies, defined as a body formed to enter into contracts with governmental bodies or bodies performing a public function which receive tax credits, tax abatement or other public tax dollars, but only to the extent that those bodies are discussing matters that relate to these tax appropriations.

B. Must the body give notice that it is meeting? The law requires that notices of meetings of public bodies be posted 24 hours in advance, exclusive of weekends and holidays, in a place reasonably accessible to the public and in a location at the principal office of the body holding the meeting, or if no office exists, at the location where the meeting will be held. The notice must include the date, time and place of each meeting and its tentative agenda in a manner "reasonably calculated to advise the public" of what will be discussed at that meeting. If the body cannot meet this 24-hour deadline, a notice may be posted at a shorter time but the minutes of the body must state the good cause for the failure to give the 24-hours notice.

C. When may a meeting of a public body be closed? The law, in Section 610.021, sets out a number of reasons a public body may close a meeting, including when the discussion relates to "legal actions, causes of action or litigation," when the public body is discussing the lease, purchase or sale of real estate, to discuss hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting an employee, or for certain other reasons set out in this statute. If it is a closed meeting, the notice must have cited one of the exceptions allowing the meeting to be closed, the body must have voted to go into closed session at an open meeting, and only that matter that relates to the particular exception or exceptions cited may be discussed.

D. How should I make a request for access to a public record? There is no special form required to request access to a public record. The person seeking the record should inquire to determine who the custodian of the records of that public entity is and then make the request to that person. Of course, it is always beneficial to make the request in writing so that a person can document when the request was made. The body then has three days to act on the request, either by producing the document/documents or by denying access, citing the exception under which denial is proper, or by advising that the access will be delayed and giving a detailed explanation as to why the delay is occurring and giving information regarding when the record will be available. If only part of the record is open and part of the record may be closed under one of the law's exemptions, the record must be segregated and the non-exempt portion be made available to the public. See Section 610-023.

E. What law enforcement records are accessible to reporters? The sunshine law sets out certain categories of law enforcement records with specific provisions regarding access to these various categories of documents. Arrest records of any kind are open records under the law. However, arrest records become closed if a person arrested is not charged within 30 days of his or her arrest, except that the court's judgment, order or final action taken by the prosecutor may be accessed. Law enforcement incident reports, which report the date, time, specific location, victim's name and initial factual report of the matter, are open records, except where there is contained therein information which law enforcement believes poses a risk of danger to the safety of a victim, witness, undercover officer or other person, in which case that information may be protected from disclosure. Investigative records are closed until the matter becomes "inactive, " which the law defines as: a) a decision to not pursue the case; b) the running of the time allowed to file charges or the passage of ten years; c) the "finality" of the convictions of all persons by exhaustion or expiration of all appeal rights. And if the law enforcement agency keeps a "log" or "record" of daily calls or reports, the information in that log relating to the time, substance and location of calls for assistance and the response made must be available to the public, as well as other information which would ordinarily be contained in an incident report. Records from calls to 911 are closed records except that the portion of the record which parallels an incident report -- ie: the date, time, place and immediate facts and circumstances surrounding the initial report of the matter -- are open to the public.

F. How does this law apply to federal entities? It doesn't. Federal entities are subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act. That act provides what records and meetings of federal entities are open to the public. While it functions much like Missouri's sunshine law, the time frames for responses and the exemptions closing records are much different that the Missouri law.

G. What about e-mail and electronically conducted meetins? The Missouri Sunshine Law now states that any e-mail sent and/or copied to a majority of the members of a governing body must be sent to either to the custodian of records or the sending official’s public email account. Records that are electronically stored are open to the public, subject to the Sunshine Law’s normal exceptions. Further, electronically conducted meetings must be noticed up in the same way as normal meetings.

NEWS REPORTER'S HANDBOOK ON LAW AND COURTS
The Missouri Press-Bar Commission
(Last Update: April 2006