House staff efforts to respond to ‘Clean Missouri’ sunshine provisions continue

Sixty-two percent of Missouri voters in November approved Constitutional Amendment 1, better known as “Clean Missouri.”  The Amendment included language that would extend the application of the state’s open records law to the state’s lawmakers.

Chief Clerk of the Missouri House Dana Rademan Miller  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Since its passage, Missouri House staff has been examining what it will mean for state representatives as well as the citizens they serve.

Otherwise known as the “Sunshine Law,” the open records law dating back to 1973 allows members of the public to request records from any public governmental body.  The House and the Senate had been exempt prior to Clean Missouri taking effect on December 6.

The chief clerk of the House, Dana Rademan Miller, said while the House’s administration has always responded to Sunshine requests, this will be new for some individual members.

“Our members … want to do what’s right and they want to comply with the law, but there’s a learning curve because a long-standing position was held that the members’ records were closed,” said Miller.

Miller said the House began working on updated policies to educate members shortly after Amendment 1 passed, and that work continues.

The House has provided members and their staffs with a memo outlining the provisions of Amendment 1 and materials from the Attorney General’s Office on Sunshine Law compliance, briefed incoming freshman lawmakers, and held additional meetings on managing Sunshine requests.

“We’ll be bringing in the Attorney General’s Office … They’ve got a Sunshine Unit.  They can help provide some training to the members … they’re experts on the Sunshine Law,” said Miller.  “[We’re also] talking to the Secretary of State’s Office and the State Archivist, and the Director of the Records Commission, getting their insight and advice.  They’re very willing to help members as they draft their retention policies.”

One particular area members are being educated on is what should be released in response to a request, and what should not be.

Miller said the Sunshine Law outlines more than 20 exemptions to what information should be released.

“We are making sure that the members are understanding what those exemptions are and that they are redacting information that should be redacted – for instance, personally identifiable information; social security numbers, that sort of information – but also on the other side, not redacting information that’s not protected,” said Miller.

Miller said that there are parts of the Sunshine Law that could benefit from clarification, and that interpretation of some provisions varies.  She said the language regarding exemptions is one such case.

“I think that there’s [an] understanding that we probably need to look at clarifying some of those provisions, not just for our lawmakers but also for all public governmental entities so that we can all be on the same page and everybody understands what should be provided,” said Miller.

Members of the Missouri House were sworn in on January 9, 2019, for the beginning of the 2019 legislative session.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The way the new constitutional provision is worded makes clear that each representative will be the custodian of records for his or her office.

“That makes sense to some extent because each member, they maintain their own records and they maintain their own e-mail account … so I understand that, but at the same time it makes it difficult for enforcement of any blanket policy on what a Sunshine policy [must] look like and maybe what a retention policy should look like – we could potentially have 163 policies and they may all be different,” said Miller.

Miller hopes the inclusion of individual lawmakers in the requirements of the Sunshine Law doesn’t discourage constituents from reaching out to those lawmakers to seek help.  She did say that members of the public should consider leaving personally identifiable information out of initial correspondence.

“We don’t want there to be a chilling effect on the ability for constituents to talk to their members,” said Miller.  “We also might want to be mindful that those records are [presumed to be] open and we need to be able to educate the constituents as well that some of the information they provide might be subject to scrutiny by another party if the documents are ‘sunshined.’”

Miller stresses that in her discussions with representatives, they haven’t been looking for ways to skirt open records requirements placed on their offices.

“I really think that in the end the records component of Clean Missouri is not a bad thing.  …  We have a duty to be transparent and responsive and I think that’s what this is going to do,” said Miller.

Of course, other portions of Amendment 1 have been the subject of discussions with lawmakers, including the prohibition against campaigning while in the Capitol and on other state property; and a $5 limit on gifts to legislators.  Miller said the respective caucuses have also been discussing the implementation of the new provisions and that the work to implement the changes will continue.

Missouri House considering reform of state’s sex offender registry

A bill that would give some sex offenders an opportunity to be removed from the sex offender registry is being considered by the Missouri House.

      The legislation would mirror the federal system which classifies offenders into three tiers based on their offenses:  less-serious offenses result in an offender being on the first tier, with those on the third tier having committed the most serious offenses.  Those on the first tier could petition the courts to be removed from the registry ten years after being placed on it.  Those on the second tier could petition after 25 years; those on tier three would remain on the registry for life.  Those who commit additional sex crimes or felonies while on the registry also cannot be removed.

The sponsor of House Bill 2042, St. Charles Republican Kurt Bahr, said providing a way for those guilty of less serious crimes to come off the registry would improve its quality.

“If you have someone in your neighborhood who’s on the list, you don’t know if they are a rapist or if they were drunk and they were peeing in public and now they’re a tier one offender,” said Bahr.  “If we can clean the list off of those people who have minor offenses then the list becomes more helpful because now you can say if this person’s on the list then they’re likely to be more worrisome.”

Bahr said offering some offenders a way off of the registry will also afford them a better chance of building a life and not committing more crimes.

“The signs of somebody likely to reoffend – not just in a sexual offense – but any criminal to reoffend is an issue of if they do not have a job, if they do not have housing, and if they do not have social interaction with others … and this list makes it harder for people to have a job, harder to have housing and harder to interact in society,” said Bahr.  “The public list makes it harder, especially for guys who are not likely to be reoffenders.”

Supporters of the legislation include the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Litigation Darrell Moore told the House Committee on the Judiciary that creating this petition process would ensure that the Highway Patrol and the Attorney General’s Office know when someone is trying to get off the registry.

He said with no mechanism in place for getting off the registry offenders who haven’t reached the federal 10- or 25-year thresholds are suing to be removed.  When that happens the Patrol and Attorney General’s Office aren’t notified until cases have been resolved, at which time the Attorney General must file motions to re-litigate the case.

Representative Kurt Bahr (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Right now we have prosecutors unfortunately, and judges, entering judgments letting people off the registry that should not be off the registry,” Moore said.

Bahr said he became familiar with the issue and filed the legislation because he has a family member who is on the registry for what would be considered a tier one offense.

“I really didn’t know about the issue before that and then after that occurred I looked into it and saw that this particular person was going to be on the list for life, and what he did was wrong and stupid but not something that anybody would think should be a lifetime punishment,” said Bahr.  “Because of that I learned about the issue and saw the lack of justice in the fact that you have a growing number of people on these tier one or tier two who have no hope of having a more meaningful life because they are barred from polite society.  Because of that – because this list continues to grow and more and more people know somebody on the list – the effectiveness of the list decreases.”

Another provision of the bill creates a second trial stage to determine whether an individual convicted of a sex crime should be considered a predatory sexual offender.  The bill specifies that such offenders would be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

The process laid out by HB 2042 specifies that the family of any victim of an offender would be notified when that offender petitions for removal from the registry.  That family would have an opportunity to respond to the petition.  The bill is also written so that people who committed crimes outside the state could not petition in Missouri to be removed from the registry.

Attempts in past years to make changes to Missouri’s registry include one that reached the desk of then-governor Nixon, who vetoed it.  Bahr notes his bill is substantially different from that one.

The committee is expected to vote next week on HB 2042.  From there it faces another committee who could vote to send it to the full House for debate.

Additional audio:

Bahr said learning that he knows someone who is on the sex offender registry gave him a new perspective.

“Once you recognize that these offenders are real people too, and that while we can acknowledge what they did was wrong we can also acknowledge that they should not be punished to the same level as someone who committed a crime far more severe,” said Bahr.  “When it became more of a personal interest I looked into it and recognized the flaws in the system that we currently have and how we can make that system better both for the prosecutors and the public and those who have committed a crime but are working on being rehabilitated.”