Joel Chandler, 47, has made himself the self-appointed leading advocate for Florida’s Sunshine Act, which is the state’s public records law. He has filed around three dozen lawsuits against school boards, medical examiners and other government agencies in his quest to assure public records are accessible to the public, as the law intends.
When Florida considered privatizing dozens of state prisons in 2011, Chandler decided to visit one facility that was already privately operated and check its compliance with the Sunshine Act. So on June 3, 2011, he walked into the 985-bed, CCA-operated Moore Haven Correctional Institution.
With a video camera in hand and accompanied by his brother, Chandler entered the prison and said, “I’m here to make a public records request.” He asked to see the visitor log. When requested to present identification, Chandler refused, noting that a citizen is not required to show ID to see public records.
The situation deteriorated from that point. CCA officials called the Glades County Sheriff’s Office after telling Chandler to submit his request in writing. Upon arrival, a sheriff’s deputy issued a trespass warning notice.
Florida’s Sunshine Act provides: “Any person shall have the right of access to public records for the purpose of making photographs of the record while such record is in the possession, custody, and control of the custodian of public records.”
“This was not a typical public records request. They came in with a video camera,” said CCA spokesman Steve Owen, who said safety and security is CCA’s top priority. “We’re going to work in good faith through the judicial process to resolve this matter.”
That judicial process included the lawsuit Chandler filed against CCA for failing to comply with his records request. “It looks as if Joel Chandler likes to stir up trouble,” Jerry Lankford III, CCA’s senior director of Partnership Relations, wrote in an email to Moore Haven warden Laura E. Bedard.
CCA also said that for security reasons, it requires anyone who enters its facilities to present identification. Further, the company’s policies prohibit videotaping without the warden’s approval. Shortly after the incident, CCA’s lawyers sent Chandler a copy of the visitor log he requested.
Chandler has no interest in what the log contains. “What I care about is access to the documents,” he stated. “My rights have been violated since June 3.” His lawsuit requested a written apology from CCA and for CCA officials to take a course on how to deal with public records requests.
“I can’t let go of it. It’s a civil rights issue,” said Chandler. He contacted the State’s Attorney’s Office and told officials there that he was detained for an hour against his will – just for seeking access to records that are supposed to be public.
The happy ending to this story is that the trespass notice was dropped and Chandler prevailed in his lawsuit over CCA’s failure to comply with the Sunshine Act, with the court finding that “CCA had unlawfully denied ... access to non-exempt public records.”
According to Chandler, following a trial in February 2012, he was awarded around $10,000 in attorney’s fees. See: Chandler v. CCA, Glades County Circuit Court (FL), Case No. 11-CA-143.
Sources: Tampa Bay Times, www.fogwatch.org
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Related legal case
Chandler v. CCA
|Cite||Glades County Circuit Court (FL), Case No. 11-CA-143|
|Level||State Trial Court|