Earlier this week, I wrote about the NITRO Task Force's refusal to follow Missouri's open records laws. Today, another drug task force, MUSTANG, contends for the title of least transparent government entity in the state.
Preliminary documents indicate the Mid-Missouri Unified Strike Team/Narcotics Group (MUSTANG) Drug Task Force, which is administered by the Cole County Sheriff's Department, seized over $60,000 in cash last year and temporarily turned it over to the federal government, so they could utilize the federal equitable sharing loophole. Missouri's Constitution requires all proceeds from asset forfeiture to go into a revolving fund for Missouri schools, but instead, MUSTANG hands it over to the feds, who in turn give back up to 80 percent to MUSTANG to spend as they see fit.
In what is probably not a coincidence, the MUSTANG Drug Task Force charged more people last year with selling marijuana than with selling meth and heroin combined. In both 2012 and 2013, MUSTANG charged more citizens with selling marijuana than any other drug.
Given these questionable priorities in 2012 and 2013, I was interested in what MUSTANG had been up to for the first half of 2014. All drug task forces are required to submit quarterly status reports, which include a breakdown of drugs seized during the quarter, with the Missouri Department of Public Safety (DPS). These records should indicate whether MUSTANG's trend of prioritizing marijuana over heroin, cocaine, and meth continued in 2014.
On Monday, July 24th, I filed a Sunshine Law Request for these documents with the primary contact listed for MUSTANG. My request included the standard language requesting advance notice of any records fees exceeding $10. The individual handling the records request informed me that their hourly rate is $25.89 but didn't state how many hours the request would require. Given the extremely limited nature of my request (three documents totaling 28 pages) and how easily the records can be accessed (the records custodian can print them from an online records program kept through DPS), I didn't expect the request to take more than a quarter of an hour to fulfill.
So I was rather surprised to receive an email from Betsy Rackers, the Administrative Officer of the Cole County Sheriff's Department, claiming I owed her $64.73 in research fees. Obviously, this was in clear defiance of my request to be notified of any fees exceeding $10, but more puzzling is how it could take two and a half (very expensive) hours to print out three reports?
In my reply email, I voiced objections to the lack of notice for the charge exceeding $10. (The entirety of our email exchange is available here). I also questioned how it could possibly have taken two and a half hours to respond to my extremely simple request, when other drug task forces have been able to provide these same records for free. She responded, in part:
Here's the problem: Of the three reasons given for the charge (get the appropriate data, print reports, redact information) only one of these was potentially legitimate. She didn't actually "get the appropriate data" I requested; it was already compiled in the quarterly status reports submitted to DPS. I can believe that she spent hours redacting information from the documents. However, she was not legally permitted to redact that information, as it was all part of an open record and redaction is not in fact justified by RSMo 610.100.3.
One of the documents MUSTANG provided overlapped with a document I had already requested and received from DPS. MUSTANG redacted basic information about the function of the task force, including the number of agencies participating in the task force and where the task force funding comes from, which is not information that can be legally redacted under Missouri's Sunshine Law. What's more, MUSTANG claimed they took advice on what to redact in the documents from DPS, but DPS didn't even redact that same information themselves!
Nonetheless, I was not willing to pay $70 to see records that should be available to the public for free, so I filed a second request for access to the records that had already been compiled in response to my request. In this request, instead of asking for copies, I asked for access to the documents for inspection (as required by Missouri's Sunshine Law) and was told they'd be available for viewing on Friday, July 18th.
Given the hostility exhibited by representatives of the MUSTANG Drug Task Force during our conversations via email, I carried an audio recorder into the public records inspection for my protection. When I arrived in the designated conference room at the Cole County Sheriff's Department, the requested records were laid out on a table for viewing. In a completely petty show of force, three representatives of the department were present to watch me read through their documents. As I took out my phone to begin photographing the open records, one armed officer interrupted and called out, "Hey, you can't take pictures!"
"Sure you can," I replied. "Haven't you read the law?" and continued photographing the documents. This was a blatant attempt by the officer to dissuade me from photographing open records that reflected negatively on the MUSTANG Drug Task Force.
When I asked about the illegal redactions discussed above, the representatives of the Cole County Sheriff's Department became hostile and aggressive. They were extremely angry that I was questioning what had been redacted. One individual stated that they had taken advice on what to redact from an individual at the Department of Public Safety -- an individual who is not a lawyer and not qualified to give legal advice.
When I pointed this out, things became even more heated. Throughout the encounter, representatives of the Cole County Sheriff's Department and the MUSTANG Drug Task Force behaved in an inappropriately aggressive manor. Their conduct suggested an inherent hostility toward the press and free inquiry, and their actions had a clear "chilling effect" on the First Amendment rights of myself and anyone else that might desire to ask questions about the MUSTANG Drug Task Force. Additionally, their deliberate and illegal defiance of Missouri's Sunshine Law furthers concerns that the MUSTANG Drug Task Force does not operate under adequate levels of transparency or public oversight.
Finally, the documents that MUSTANG didn't want the public to see showed that, during the first six months of 2014, the MUSTANG Drug Task Force seized more marijuana than any other drug. I can't imagine why they wouldn't want the rest of us to know what they're up to.
If you believe in government transparency, we need your help. Task forces like MUSTANG rely on the assumption that we won't have the resources to challenge them when they break the law and keep illegal secrets. Let's prove them wrong and show MUSTANG and all the drug task forces in Missouri that we are watching them. If holding these drug warriors accountable is important to you, please make a contribution here.
P.S. Since MUSTANG seems so opposed to you knowing what they're up to, here is every record we've ever received on them since this research project began a year ago.
If you're interested in my other research on Missouri's Drug Task Forces, please check out these related articles:
Drug Task Force Priorities: Marijuana or Meth?
Law Enforcement Training vs Political Propaganda: The Fine Line
Saint Louis Police Attorney Denies Existence of Drug Task Force That He Represents
In Jefferson County, Drug Cops Run Wild
This Is Not a Drug Task Force: The Kafkaesque World of NITRO
-Aaron Malin is the Director of Research for Show-Me Cannabis. You can email him with questions or comments at Aaron@ShowMeCannabis.com. Special thanks to Americans for Forfeiture Reform and the National Cannabis Coalition for making this research financially possible, as well as to Kelsey Smith for countless hours of research assistance.