Dallas Court of Appeals Rules for Kaufman Sheriff in Open Records Case

What happens when an inmate sues the sheriff for open records information?

Today’s case of the day is In Re Brian Edwards Johnson-

In 2008 Brian Edwards Johnson was incarcerated in the Kaufman County jail and sustained an injury. Not sure why he was in jail, or what the injury was. In 2011, Johnson was still an inmate (not sure where) and he filed an open records request to obtain records regarding the 2008 injury. The Sheriff denied the request and asked the AG to rule on the issue. The AG agreed with the Sheriff. Johnson filed suit and appealed to the 5th District in Dallas.

TIL- Texas allows the government to deny any open records request from an inmate. Texas Government Code 555.028 tells us that “[a] governmental body is not required to accept or comply with a request for information from (1) an individual who is imprisoned or confined in a correctional facility.”

I kind of get it, and I kind of don’t. Inmates, the people who we incarcerate (even if they are innocent) can abuse the legal process. So much so in fact, that Texas has special rules that govern lawsuits by indigent inmates.

See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 14.002. Chapter fourteen imposes certain procedural requirements an inmate must satisfy in filing suit and allows a court to dismiss the suit if (1) the requirements are not met, (2) the inmate knowingly filed a false affidavit or unsworn declaration concerning previous suits or his indigency status, or (3) the suit is frivolous or malicious. See id. §§ 14.003(a), 14.004 (West Supp. 2011), 14.005 (West 2002); Hamilton v. Williams, 298 S.W.3d 334, 339 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2009, pet. denied). The purpose of chapter fourteen is to control inmate litigation and aid the trial court in determining whether an inmate’s claim is frivolous. See Hamilton, 298 S.W.3d at 339; Garrett v. Williams, 250 S.W.3d 154, 157 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2008, no pet.).

However, unlike lawsuits which give a judge discretion and some parameters to evaluate the merits of an inmate’s claim, inmate open record requests can be dismissed without any justification or review. In this case, Johnson appeared to argue the civil standard on appeal for his open records claim, that his open records claim wasn’t frivolous, inter alia.

Holding- Johnson loses because the government can always ignore an open records request from an inmate. The Sheriff could provide this information if he wanted to. But that doesn’t mean he has to. From the court’s opinion-

Although information about the health of an inmate is subject to disclosure under section 552.029 and a governmental body may, under section 552.028, disclose records requested by an inmate, a governmental body is not required to comply with an inmate’s request simply because the requested information pertains to the inmate himself. See Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 552.028(b), 552.029.

Open records aren’t free. The government can charge for this information. So I’m not sure why all inmate requests should be denied. Especially given the problem Texas has with a) convicting the innocent b) hiding evidence from defendants, and c) killing inmates through heat torture. What if an inmate uncovered evidence he was wrongfully convicted through open records activism? The system may not care about wrongful convictions (Texas has one county, Dallas, with a conviction integrity unit), but inmates do.

One thing inmates do have is time, and government may be wary of thousands of requests coming in from inmates. However, until Texas reforms our criminal justice system it seem less than equitable to deny those trapped in it access to all government information.

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