The family of a pedestrian hit and killed by a Jacksonville police officer in May was asked to pay more than $300,000 for public records dealing with the officer’s work history — and that was just the cost of the search.
Florida’s leading public records expert called the estimate “outrageous” and a potential violation of state public records laws.
Officer Tim James, who wasinvestigated by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office 11 times before he was arrested in June on charges of beating a handcuffed teenager, hit and killed Blane Land with his police cruiser about a month before the incident that led to his arrest. Attorney John M. Phillips, who is representing the Land family, asked for records relating to James’ driving history and civil rights complaints.
The request was routine, but the outspoken attorney was shocked by the cost — which would have covered the first of three potential estimates.
“When Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office kills someone and then sends you a $314,000 bill for public records, when they know they kept a bad officer on the force,” Phillips wrote in a Monday evening Facebook post that went viral, garnering 120 shares as of Tuesday morning.
Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said the estimate likely constitutes a violation of public records law, because it denies Phillips his constitutional right to access public records.
“Frankly, it smacks of obfuscation,” Petersen said. “It’s absurd.”
Phillips said Tuesday the Sheriff’s Office has a history of setting up roadblocks when responding to attorneys pursuing litigation against an employee, but will turn over records at a much quicker pace when they concern an inmate or an arrested civilian.
Petersen agreed that is usually how it goes throughout the state of Florida. “When they want you to have it, you get it,” she said. “When they don’t want you to have it, you have to go through hell and back to get it.”
Phillips noted theSheriff’s Office estimate exceeds the cap of $200,000 to $300,000 on financial recovery from a government agency in a tort case.
“If we paid it, the client would have zero ability to recover,” Phillips said. “In fact, they’d owe us $14,000, so of course it dissuades justice.”
The complaint by Phillips comes as the Times-Union recently raised questions about the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s compliance with state public records laws. Lauri-Ellen Smith, the Sheriff’s Office’s spokeswoman, said the agency was reviewing the matter. The Times-Union is awaiting further comment.
By the time James hit and killed Land on University Boulevard in May, he had two chargeable traffic crashes and a variety of other infractions, including two red-light violations and eight total traffic tickets dating back to 2002.
James, who was arrested June 10 after about three years on the force, had a long history of internal investigations — including a sustained complaint that caught him lying to his supervisors in a disciplinary investigation, which experts said should have led to his firing.
Phillips said he put the Sheriff’s Office on notice of his pending lawsuit, but can’t actually file it until the agency either resolves the claim or lets 90 days pass. The attorney said the Sheriff’s Office usually lets the 90 days pass. He added he needs the records to specify what wrongdoing he is alleging in the suit.
“So, play this out,” Phillips said. “Let’s say I paid for the records, that has to take years, right? Blown statute of limitations benefits them. Either way, it’s power protecting power.”
Petersen said the cost estimate is especially bizarre because James was only on the force for about three years, so the estimate to search Internal Affairs files relating to him would have equaled about $100,000 per year.
“If you had told me he was on the force for 30 years, I would have said, ‘Eh, maybe,” Petersen said.
Phillips complained the media gained access to internal files on James before he did, which he said continues a pattern of the Sheriff’s Office disseminating information to news outlets and its social channels before coughing it up to attorneys.
The request was made June 15, and the Sheriff’s Office responded with the estimate more than a month later, on July 17. Itemized costs included:
  • “9-1-1 Comm Center Search/Process Fee: $287.25”
  • “Accreditation Fee: $90.09”
  • “Internal Affairs Search/Process Fee: $313,646.07”
  • “ISM Tech Fee: $71.46”
  • “Patrol/Investigations Search/Process Fee: $259.08”
  • “Public Records Unit Search/Process Fee: $333.96”
The attorney conceded he made a wide-ranging request — generally speaking, he wanted information about the officer’s driving history and any infractions where someone accused him of civil rights violations or recklessness. He said he wasn’t sure how the request was being interpreted, but he said he shouldn’t be left to speculate.
Phillips said the letter was sent 4:48 p.m. without a courtesy call and no explanation.
Petersen said that is part of the problem. Instead of offering to help Phillips with his request, she said, they violated his right to public access.
The Land family was outraged by the estimate, Phillips said.
“This just adds insult to injury when you go back to a family that lost a loved one and say, ‘By the way, they want $300,000’,” Phillips said, “And they have no choice but to say no to it.”
Ben Conarck: (904) 349-4103