Ohio County, West Virginia — On March 4th, a staff writer for two local newspapers in Ohio County filed a request with the Sheriff’s office, requesting a list of concealed carry permit holders in the area under the Freedom of Information Act. Even though the list was considered public information under West Virginia’s FOIA, Sheriff Patrick Butler (legal custodian of the records) unilaterally denied the request. He afterward took to Facebook, proudly posting his letter of refusal to the acclaim of local gun owners:
He wrote a notice, along with the letter:
[box type=”shadow”]”The citizens of Ohio County voted me into office to protect them, and their property. Publishing their names as valid permit holders is an invasion of their privacy, and puts them at unnecessary risk. With drug-related crimes such as home burglaries, armed pharmacy robberies, and shoplifting at an all-time high, anyone with criminal intent could target permit holders knowing that they most likely keep firearms in their homes.
Alternatively, names not on the list could be targeted as unarmed, and less likely to defend themselves during a robbery. For the aforementioned reasons, I refuse to compromise the safety of the citizens of Ohio County. An appeal of this decision may be filed with the Ohio County Clerk of Court.”[/box]
They posted this to Facebook as well:
Some commenters said that the newspaper reporter and his editor should be “run out of town,” echoing the results of an oddly similar occurrence in North Carolina. In February of last year, The Cherokee Scout’s editor Robert Horne resigned and left town, after requesting the same records (legally, under the FOIA) of Murphy’s sheriff Keith Lorvin. Lorvin turned him town, posted the refusal letter on Facebook, and public reaction against Horne’s newspaper effectively forced him to resign and leave town. The newspaper later apologized for its “tremendous error in judgement,” and said that it only wanted the records to report on how many people had CCWs in the area. It never had any intention of publishing the names, as some others, like the controversial Journal News, have.
Murphy, NC was later called by blogger Jim Romenesko “The place where journalism went to die.”
The paper’s editor, Mike Myer, says he won’t be pulling a Horne though. He told the Columbia Journalism Review:
[box type=”shadow”]”Nobody’s going to run me out of my home.”[/box]
In fact, Myer doubled down by sending similar FOIA requests to the Sheriff’s offices of six surrounding counties — five of them flatly turned him down, just as Butler and Lorvin did. If you’re beginning to see a slightly systemic abuse of the law here, then you’re not the first. Myer said:
“Obviously you’re in a slippery slope situation if a sheriff can unilaterally deny a request for that type of public record,” Myer says. “What kind of record is he likely to deny next?”
(Probably any type the NRA tells him to, as they’re currently backing a bill stalled in the state legislature to make such records private, as they are in many other states. Butler’s contradictory “logic,” such as it is, is standard NRA fearmongering. “You’re a target if you’re on the list, and a target if you’re not. You’re just a target…buy more guns!)
And make no mistake — what these people have done is a crime. Even Butler acknowledges that, as he joked to CJR, and commented to the local TV news station:
[box type=”shadow”]”I may end up in jail…I disagree with that and I am going to disagree with that until the day I’m out of office.”[/box]
Here’s the news report:
So, what penalties might Butler and the rest of his lawbreaking Sheriff friends be subject to if/when they’re found guilty of blatantly disregarding the FOIA? From the West Virginia FIOA:
Lawsuit Against the Sheriff’s Department:
[box type=”shadow”]”Any person denied the right to inspect a public record of a public body may sue the public body in circuit court for injunctive or declaratory relief under the Freedom of Information Act. The burden is on the public body to prove to the satisfaction of the court that the records sought are exempt from disclosure. If successful, the person bringing the suit may recover his or her attorney fees and court costs from the public body that denied access to the records.”[/box]
Criminal Penalties for the Sheriff:
[box type=”shadow”]”Any custodian of a public record who willfully violates the Act is guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction may be fined from $100.00 to $500.00 or imprisoned in the county jail for up to ten (10) days, or both.”[/box]
Will any of this get Butler or the other Sheriffs kicked out of office? He would still meet the state’s minimum requirements to hold office. But would he be voted in? Public reaction is predictably split:
So, Butler may get voted out, and he may not. But, it’s hard to be Sheriff when you can’t be a police officer. The requirements to be a police officer in WV are hazy on the subject of criminal convictions: You must “pass a background check, and be of good character” without any “serious criminal convictions.”
And who decides what constitutes “good character” and a “serious conviction” in Ohio County?
Just the other day, we said in an article on Women’s Self-Defense Classes in Glendale, CA that there are exceptions to every rule. Exceptions get made every day, and they’re a part of any healthy, functioning system of law. Justice is the exercise of judicious mercy, after all.
But those exceptions are granted to other people by the people in charge…not to the people in charge by themselves. Obfuscation of government function, unilaterally showing preferential treatment to your supporters, at the expense of the law you swore to uphold; that’s not justice. It’s totalitarianism. That’s something our Tea Party friends never can seem to stop talking about:
Former Overpass organizer and Tea Party Conservatives leader (pre-GOATing) CJ Ross: