PATSY R. BRUMFIELD: Don’t accept ‘no’ in search of document

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

Ever wonder what will happen if you ask for a public record?
Last week, I was curious about a criminal complaint in Oxford, so I dropped by the police department to see what its status was and if it were coming up in court soon.
So, I went to the Records window and asked how I could check on the case. I’m not overly familiar with how Oxford handles such things since I don’t usually poke around over there, but I introduced myself properly as a member of the region’s Fourth Estate.
Suffice it to say that the Records lady fairly told me to buzz off and that I didn’t have any right to see the records.
That got my goat, as you can imagine, so I told her that, perhaps, I did have a right to see those records, some of which are public.
As I was getting my 1st Amendment back up, the lady suggested that I go over to City Court and see what was there.
Not wanting to get into a verbal dispute so early in the day, I headed to the Square where City Court is housed upstairs in City Hall.
Again, I introduced myself and asked about the status of the case.
The clerk told me it was “pending.” Is there a court date, I inquired.
Yes, she said and told me when, then she asked for my media credentials.
I fished them out of my big, black purse. But, I said to her, it shouldn’t matter because this information is public record to anybody.
Off I went, a wee bit annoyed, as a charter member and previous chairman of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, housed at the University of Mississippi’s School of Journalism.
Next, I trotted over to the Lafayette County Courthouse. In the circuit clerk’s office, I identified myself and asked to see a criminal case file.
Without a blink, a courteous young woman fetched it and handed it to me. She also copied a three-page document and charged me $3.
As I was about to exit the office, I turned and congratulated the staff for their appropriate behavior in response to a public records request.
Mississippi has a Public Records Act. It’s found in the Code at Section 25-61-1 and beyond.
It entitles you and me to a wide variety of records created by every “public body,” including departments, bureaus, divisions, agencies of the state, county and municipalities and more, plus of appointed and elected officials.
Among the exceptions are records of public bodies engaged in enforcement of criminal laws, such as the Oxford Police Department, but not records consisting only of identifying data and notations of arrest, the nature and disposition of criminal charges, sentencing, confinement, release, and parole and probation status.
Don’t take no from anybody, if you want a document. Call the MCFOI hotline at (601) 949-4848, and get the right answer.

Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com.