Sunshine laws in Georgia still fight tyranny

Secret arrests?  Not so American.  The founding fathers had a big problem with the idea.

But working on a story about voting law in Georgia, I saw how they could happen.  And I saw what stops them from happening: sunshine laws.

Any Georgia reporter who’s covered the government knows that the Georgia Open Records Act, and sister laws about meetings and federal documents, underpin most of our interactions — though it often goes unspoken.  The law says they have three days to respond?  They’ll respond within three days.  Sometimes you get into a discussion about the rules.  But most of the time  officials just comply.  When the rules do come up, it may be because the law says “we don’t have to give you that.”  And if it’s something embarrassing, they probably won’t.

A few officials have a reputation for deep personal respect for the spirit and letter of the law, such as Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan.  Others not so much, such as the state official who lied to me about the existence of a document by silently shaking her head, or the one who made a point of getting me a document, one about public spending that I knew was sitting in her computer, at 5:01 p.m. on the last possible day the law allowed.  As the days passed and I drove downtown to sit in her lobby, I got one response repeatedly: We will comply with the law.

Q-10+2 Pic

When 12 voter activists were indicted in Brooks County, Ga. on charges of illegal involvement in absentee balloting, they embraced their celebrity as a civil rights struggle and took a photo together. Third from left in the front row is Lula Smart, who was acquitted of all counts on Sept. 17, 2014.  Photo supplied by the subjects.

In Brooks County, what I wanted was very clearly a public document — the arrest documentation of 12 voter activists.

It was a textbook case for sunshine laws.  The 12 viewed the arrests as political persecution, their punishment for bringing out the black vote so successfully that they overturned white rule on the county school board for the first time ever.  The prosecution maintained that the activists had simply broken voting laws, committing 100-plus felonies.  Prosecutors had a whiff of a case on some of the charges, but not much on others — for example, the “felony” of taking people’s completed, sealed ballots to the mailbox for them with their permission.

The booking photos with accompanying documentation would allow me to check the accuracy of what I’d heard from the arrestees.  The photos in particular would show much better than words what it meant for a sitting school board member, or a nursing student, or a brand new voter, to be arrested.

So I called in my records request.  It’s such a common type of request that I doubted I needed to email it as well. I did anyway, just to cross my t’s.

I heard nothing.

Two days later I called the sheriff’s assistant.  I already knew she got my email.  She assured me she gave the sheriff my message as well, and that she would tell him again that I called.

Nothing.

The next day I called back.  Yes, she said, she put my message in the sheriff’s hand.  I told her gently that he had to respond, it’s a violation of the law not to.

He knows the law, she snapped.  What I have to understand, she said, is that the sheriff is very busy.

In a rare and lucky turn of events, my deadline was weeks away.  I had other work to do. I’m not a troublemaker, I just wanted the photos.

But I started to think, what if I weren’t a reporter for a major news organization, but a cashier or a farm worker whose sister got arrested?  What if I didn’t know the law?  What if I knew the law but the justice system simply ignored it?

Our founding fathers cared deeply about openness, sick as they were of the tyranny of British occupation.

In putting together The Federalist Papers, one of the most important founding texts of the United States, Alexander Hamilton sought out a quote from the great jurist William Blackstone.  Sure, Hamilton wrote, taking a person’s things or life without trial would be “a gross and notorious act of despotism, as must at once convey the alarm of tyranny throughout the whole nation.” But, he added, a secret arrest was even worse.  “Confinement of the person, by secretly hurrying him to jail, where his sufferings are unknown or forgotten, is a less public, a less striking, and therefore a more dangerous engine of arbitrary government.”

Actually, these 12 arrests in Brooks County were no secret.  They were well known activists with the vocal support of a large African-American community.  Their backers put out the word, and then some. Though none of the 12 were on the website where the sheriff’s office lists, perhaps because they were released so quickly, the local press obtained the arrest documents when it first happened. Then, when prosecutors put on their first case, it got intense local news attention.  But that is an unusual situation.

That’s why the law applies to everyone.

Time had passed when I sought the records, and many of the local officials I spoke to on the prosecution’s side just wanted it done with.  I don’t know how the sheriff felt; we never spoke. He did not return messages for this article, either.

On the phone back then, the sheriff’s assistant assured me she’d bug him again.  So I waited.  Weeks later, on Dec. 11, 2014, I called back.  This time I talked to a lieutenant. I brought in the big guns: Georgia’s sunshine law.

Do you have a pen? I asked.

I re-explained the records request.  I reiterated that I worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

I’m about to publish a story , I said.  And I will be writing that the sheriff violated the law.  That Sheriff Dewey is in violation of the law.  Got that down?  He’ll get the message?

Within an hour, a captain was calling me to help get me the documents.

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