By Karen Hall
The case brought against Sheriff Norman Dalton for denying access to records requested under the Tennessee Public Records Act was heard in Chancery Court Wednesday morning.
The case was brought by Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center.
Friedmann began requesting various records relating to procedures and policies at the Marshall County Jail on Feb. 3, but was turned down every time, with Dalton insisting, through a staff member, that Friedmann appear in person to request and examine the records.
Even an opinion by the Office of Open Records Counsel that the law was clear -- a person does NOT have to make a records request in person -- failed to persuade Dalton to comply, though Friedmann made multiple requests.
"The state requires proof of the residency," said County Attorney Bill Haywood in his opening statement. "The address on Mr. Friedmann's driver's license is not a residence. If he can prove residence, we will comply with the public records act. The request was denied because he did not prove residency."
"The first time we have heard anything about residency is today," exclaimed Friedmann's attorney Robert Dalton. "They are not allowed to shift the goal posts like that."
"He's an ex-convict," said Norman Dalton while he was in the witness chair. "I'm not going to turn records over to him without referring to the county attorney. I haven't had anybody make an open records request that I didn't know. I'll figure out who he is and where he's from before I give him access to the records."
Norman Dalton admitted that once he had a copy of Friedmann's driver's license, he checked the address, and even drove to Antioch to photograph the place, to prove it was not someone's home.
When Friedmann was called to the witness stand, Robert Dalton asked him, "Why did you stick with this process for so long?
"We try to resolve matters administratively," Friedmann answered. "We give them every opportunity to comply with the law, and only then do we look to filing a suit."
"Did you attempt to negotiate?" Robert Dalton asked.
"The PLN staff attorney contacted the county attorney," Friedmann said. "He still said we were misinterpreting the law and had to come in person. At no time until an hour or so ago was I informed there was a problem with my residence of Tennessee."
Questioned by Haywood, Friedmann admitted he got the mailing address when he was out of state for five months in 2010 and never changed his driver's license to his home address when he came back.
"You can't get a Tennessee driver's license if you're not a Tennessee resident," Friedmann pointed out.
"What is the basis for you claiming citizenship in Tennessee?" asked Chancellor J. B. Cox.
"I reside in Tennessee" and have done so for 20 years, answered Friedmann. "I have had my voting rights restored, I own property, my car is registered here."
In his closing argument, Haywood said, "Having a driver's license does not prove you are a resident of Tennessee. The law states Sheriff Dalton must prove the requester is a resident of Tennessee. We never got his physical address until today. He ducked and dodged -- we were not convinced he was a resident."
"Up until two weeks ago, none of the denials had any concerns about residency," argued Robert Dalton. "All they wanted was for him to come to Marshall County so someone from the Marshall County Sheriff's Department could interrogate him. You're not allowed to check their background and visit their home! You're not allowed to do things this sheriff admitted under oath he did.
"This may be the worst bad faith I've ever seen in an open records case," he continued.
Robert Dalton said his client was asking the Chancellor to rule in his favor, compelling the Sheriff's Department to release the requested records, as well as pay Friedmann's attorney fees.
Cox said he could not make an immediate ruling, but would take the case "under advisement," study the applicable case law, and release a written opinion within a few days.
Apologizing for the lack of immediate resolution, he said, "That leaves everybody in limbo, which as a proactive jurist I don't like to do."
Later, outside the courtroom, Friedmann said, "I find it alarming and very disturbing that a law officer can do a background check because I filed a public records request. It's a frightening abuse of power. He's trying to cover his a##, and doing so unsuccessfully."
A Nashville television station was at the courthouse. Their camera was not allowed in the courtroom, but participants in the case were interviewed in the hallway for a report which ran on the Six O'Clock News Wednesday.