- Associated Press - Sunday, May 15, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The Missouri Legislature this session voted to curtail public access to some public records that lawmakers have sought to seal for years.

Some police body camera footage, agricultural data and criminal records would become closed records under legislation sitting on Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk. The Legislature also considered sealing police records on sexual assault and suicides, as well as the identity of lottery winners, but did not act.

Supporters have said closing those records would protect citizens’ privacy while encouraging some individuals, businesses and government agencies to do things - such as participating in programs that track livestock disease or equipping police with body cameras - that could open them to unwarranted scrutiny under current law.

Others see the bills as the latest in a potentially irreversible effort to weaken government transparency.

“We watch this every year. And just quite frankly, we see more and more efforts … to close access to records that belong to the public,” said Doug Crews of the Missouri Press Association, who has lobbied lawmakers on open records laws and other media issues for more than 30 years.

Missouri’s Sunshine Law says all government documents, votes and actions must be available to the public unless specifically excluded. Some closed records, such as patients’ health records, remain permanently sealed while others, such as police investigation reports, can be released under certain conditions.

Some records, such as video from police car dashboard cameras, fall into a grey area because they can capture both public and private information, said Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association.

That kind of ambiguity has made police departments reluctant to adopt body cameras until they have clear guidelines on what footage the public can access, said Rep. Robert Cornejo, a Republican from St. Peters who handled legislation establishing those parameters.

A provision attached to multiple bills would bar public access to footage from police body and dashboard cameras while investigations are ongoing. And videos taken at homes, schools, medical facilities and other “nonpublic locations” could remain closed after a case ends.

“It could have been much worse,” Crews said, noting that last year lawmakers proposed completely closing access to the footage.

Nixon didn’t say whether he would sign that bill, but he called it “interesting.”

The governor did say he supported expunging criminal records, and he would give serious consideration to a bill that would allow some people guilty of nonviolent crimes to seal their criminal records.

Another bill awaiting Nixon’s action would require state agencies to keep confidential the information farmers submit for voluntary agricultural programs, such as registration data for animal disease tracking programs. Anyone who improperly releases that information could be sued.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jay Houghton, R-Martinsburg, said farmers would be more willing to submit personal and business information to the government if they knew it couldn’t be disclosed to competitors.

Lawmakers did not pass a bill that would have allowed lottery winners to remain anonymous, as they are in Kansas. Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat, said that drives lottery players out of the state when they play for large prizes.

“The lines are out the door at the Hy-Vee in Kansas, and there’s crickets in Missouri,” he said, adding that anonymity would protect winners’ security as well.

But if you don’t know who wins the lottery, Maneke said, it becomes difficult to detect misconduct among lottery operators.

Crews said he was frustrated that legislation strengthening Sunshine Laws never made it past hearings, even as lawmakers pushed open records exemptions through both chambers.

“When these records are closed, they’re pretty much closed forever,” he said. “And I don’t see, in my time working in Jefferson City, future legislators coming in and saying, ‘Well we really need these open.’”

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