COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)
A Columbia family claims Boone County is breaking the state's open records law in their year-long fight to get records involving a man's death.
Latia Harris and Shauntel Franklin, the mother and partner of Ahmonta Harris respectively, sued the county on Tuesday for withholding Boone County Sheriff's Department records involving Harris' 2018 death. Franklin will represent their child, A.H., in the case. The lawsuit claims the county refused to provide an unredacted copy of the investigation and required they pay more than $2,000 to get redacted copies of the records.
Harris was killed in November 2018 in the 5700 block of East Limoges Drive, just east of Columbia. Investigators say Deonte Gainwell shot Harris during an attempted break-in of the home. Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight said that he would not charge anyone in Harris' death, calling the shooting justified.
David Roland, attorney for Harris and Franklin, said the family still has questions about Harris' death. State law allows for close relatives of someone killed to get unredacted reports and videos of any case involving the deceased.
"They feel like the investigation was not very thorough," Roland said. "And by getting access to these records, it will allow them to personally look into the situation, to find out if maybe there were things that should have been recognized, should have been pursued but were not."
The lawsuit claims the county violated the open records law by denying the family unredacted copies of the records, excessively charging the family to produce the records and by saying the Harris family "abandoned" their first request for records.
The family began asking the sheriff's department for records in June 2019. An attorney for the county asked a judge to keep those records closed or allow them to redact witnesses mentioned in the reports. Attorney Ronald Sweet said that releasing the witnesses names could make it "impossible for Boone County to reasonably ensure their safety."
While Gainwell was killed two months after Harris' death, Roland said the government never explained why releasing the unredacted reports to Harris' family would threaten the witnesses' safety.
"You could say, 'There might be a revenge motive if a certain person gets a hold of this information,' but the burden's on the government to justify why it should deny the family access to the unedited records," Roland said.
Boone County counselor C.J. Dykhouse told ABC 17 News that the county dropped the fight to keep the reports closed in February. He said the Harris family's first attorney, Stephen Wyse, abandoned the request by not paying for the records at that time.
Dykhouse declined to comment on Roland's lawsuit.
A judge ruled in November 2019 that the county could give them the redacted version of the investigation, and allow the Harris family to come back to court if it still wanted the unredacted copy. The sheriff's department said it would give them the files after they paid $2,215.
Roland said many of the "exorbitant" charges shouldn't even apply. He points to a recent appeals court decision that said the government can't charge for attorney time to review and redact records.
"They're charging for 60 hours worth of attorney time related to these records," Roland said. "That's in violation of the Sunshine Law."
Harris was a well-known neighborhood activist that organized events in town. He often spoke at north Columbia neighborhood meetings and arranged a yearly "fireworks war" that he hoped would bring young people together.