A Missouri judge has fined the Highway Patrol $5,000 for violating the state’s open-records law in the case of a college student who drowned while in custody on the Lake of the Ozarks in 2014.
Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem issued his order Wednesday in Jefferson City. He also instructed the state to pay the costs of lawyers who requested records in the drowning of Brandon Ellingson on May 31, 2014, after he fell into the lake from a trooper’s boat while handcuffed.
Trooper Anthony Piercy faces a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Ellingson, 20, of suburban Des Moines. A trial was to be held in September in Versailles, Mo., but was delayed by a recent change of judge.
The patrol says Ellingson was intoxicated while operating his family’s 28-foot boat, the “Sotally Tober.”
The criminal charge and a separate lawsuit by the family allege that Piercy was negligent in securing Ellingson after arresting him. Piercy put a life jacket over Ellingson’s handcuffed arms. When Ellingson went overboard, the life jacket came off.
Lawyers for Ellingson’s family requested numerous records under the state Sunshine Law, which governs public records and meetings.
The lawyers filed suit in Cole County in December 2014, alleging the patrol had not complied with a series of records requests beginning a week after the drowning. The judge said the state didn’t comply until 40 days after the lawsuit.
The law requires public agencies to respond within three days of a request with at least valid explanations for delays, then comply as soon as possible. Beetem, in his order, said the state’s actions amounted to a “purposeful violation.”
His fine is the maximum allowed.
A spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, whose office defends state agencies, said, “We are reviewing the ruling.” It has 30 days to respond.
The requests for records included Piercy’s work schedule and training, Highway Patrol policies on life jackets and handcuffs, radio logs and GPS positions of Piercy’s boat.