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Missouri lawmakers endorse restrictions to public records

Missouri lawmakers endorse restrictions to public records

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Missouri Capitol

The Missouri State Capitol on the banks of the Missouri River.

(AP Photo/Dan Gill)

JEFFERSON CITY • The Missouri Legislature this session voted to curtail public access to some public records that lawmakers have sought to seal for years.

Some police body camera footage, agricultural data and criminal records would become closed records under legislation sitting on Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk. The Legislature also considered sealing police records on sexual assault and suicides, as well as the identity of lottery winners, but did not act.

Supporters have said closing those records would protect citizens’ privacy while encouraging some individuals, businesses and government agencies to do things — such as participating in programs that track livestock disease or equipping police with body cameras — that could open them to unwarranted scrutiny under current law.

Others see the bills as the latest in a potentially irreversible effort to weaken government transparency.

“We watch this every year. And just quite frankly, we see more and more efforts ... to close access to records that belong to the public,” said Doug Crews of the Missouri Press Association.

Missouri’s Sunshine Law says all government documents, votes and actions must be available to the public unless specifically excluded. Some closed records, such as patients’ health records, remain permanently sealed while others, such as police investigation reports, can be released under certain conditions.

Some, such as video from police car dashboard cameras, fall into a gray area because they can capture public and private information, said Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association.

Police are reluctant to adopt body cameras until they have clear guidelines on what footage the public can access, said State Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters.

A provision attached to multiple bills would bar public access to footage from police body and dashboard cameras while investigations are ongoing. Videos at homes, schools, medical facilities and other “nonpublic locations” could remain closed after a case ends.

Nixon didn’t say whether he would sign that bill, but he called it “interesting.”

The governor did say he supported expunging criminal records, and he would give serious consideration to a bill allowing some people guilty of nonviolent crimes to seal their records.

Another bill would require state agencies to keep confidential the information farmers submit for voluntary programs, such as animal disease tracking programs. The sponsor, Rep. Jay Houghton, R-Martinsburg, said farmers would be more cooperative if they knew it couldn’t be disclosed to competitors.

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