By John Dickerson
New Times filed a complaint for special action this week against Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County Superior Court, asking that a judge order Arpaio to hand over public records that his office has refused to produce despite public records requests.
The disputed records include video footage of the final moments of inmate Juan Mendoza Farias’ life. Farais died on December 5, 2007, after an altercation with 11 guards in Arpaio’s jail. The altercation left Farias with bruises and welts covering much of his body. An independent medical examiner reviewed Farias’ autopsy and told New Times that Farias was beaten and suffocated before he died.
On July 25, New Times asked the sheriff for video footage and other public records about Farias’ death. In August, Lieutenant Dot Culhane, a legal liaison for the sheriff, said the footage and records would not be released because they were part of an ongoing investigation.
Case law in Arizona, however, dictates that merely claiming an investigation is ongoing -- without showing specific, serious harm that releasing the records would cause -- is not a valid reason for law enforcement to deny a public record request.
On September 11, New Times published a story about Farias’ death, in which it was mentioned that Arpaio’s staff would not deliver records that Arizona law deems public.
The next week, New Times received a letter dated September 11 that included Farias’ booking photo. In that letter, the MCSO claimed it was legal to refuse the video and other requested records. Pam Woody, another legal liaison, wrote that if the video of Farias’ death were released, guards might see it and that might compromise the sheriff’s investigation into the death.
“For example, if a witness were to view a videotape of the incident or have information relayed to her by someone who viewed the videotape, it is possible that the witness’ memory of what occurred will be altered to conform to what they believe they are seeing or what they have been told,” Woody wrote.
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“As such, the possibility of compromising the ongoing investigation, however slight, must be prevented,” Woody added.
In the complaint, New Times attorney Steven P. Suskin writes that “Arpaio’s refusal to allow examination of the original video tape or other digital display of the death of Mr. Farias or to provide copies of other documents, as requested, constitutes a violation of [state law].”
The complaint adds that withholding the video “is without merit, speculative, made in bad faith and insufficient as a matter of law to avoid compliance with the Arizona Public Records Law. Arpaio presented nothing more than global generalities of the possible harm that might result from release of the requested public records.”
On Monday, Arpaio’s staff was served notice of the complaint. The sheriff has 20 days to file a legal explanation for withholding the records. The complaint for special action is not a civil lawsuit seeking monetary reward. Special action is a legal device that requires government agencies to abide by the law.