Knox County Sheriff sued by UT professor for allegedly violating Public Records Act

Local News

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – The Knox County Sheriff’s Office is facing a lawsuit over access to public records requests, regarding the county’s 287(g) program. The suit asks for judicial review of denied Open Records Requests submitted by UT Professor and Co-chair of Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN), Meghan Conley. 

“Many of the requests that she (Meghan Conley) made – if made to another agency – would’ve been fulfilled no problems,” said Deborah Fisher, the Executive Director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG). “So we’re concerned that the sheriff’s office is denying access to records and requests that are quite legitimate.”

The lawsuit claims KCSO has violated the Public Records Act (PRA) routinely and systematically for the past year and a half, in part through denying Conley’s requests regarding 287(g) material.

“If the sheriff’s department can deny access to records by just saying we won’t fill records requests that are large or records requests that don’t specifically name the title of a document than that will shut down all records requestors from getting any records from the sheriff’s department – then it simply becomes what the sheriff’s department wants to fulfill and doesn’t want to fulfill,” said Fisher.

“It’s multiple kinds of denials across a year and a half,” said Andrew Fels, presenting attorney in the case. “The great concern is that this is not a problem that is isolated to professor Conley – that this might be KCSO’s policy in general.”

“That’s what concerns me, if that becomes the standard, then we don’t have a public records law in Tennessee,” Fisher said. “We have someone denying access through sort of you know you didn’t guess the name of the document.”

WATE did reach out to Knox County Law Director Bud Armstrong for comment, he told the station the County Law Office does not comment on pending litigation.

The controversial program has sparked protest on multiple occasions throughout Knox County – 287(g) allows sheriff’s deputies to enforce federal immigration law on a more local level. 

The Public Records Act (PRA) is a sunshine law – allowing for citizen oversight of government activity, so people are aware of what their elected officials are doing. 

Andrew Fels, the attorney filing suit on behalf of Conley, says the PRA is clear – that any citizen can walk into any state or county government office and request to inspect or obtain its records. 

If those records cannot be made available at that time, the agency is given a certain grace period to collect them and provide a written response, which states the records were provided/ tell you when they will be available, or explain why they are denying your request. 

If your request is denied for any reason you have the right to file a petition in Chancery Court – which is exactly what is happening in the case of Meghan Conley v. Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler. 

The lawsuit, according to Fels, is aimed at getting KCSO’s Chief Counsel, Mike Ruble, to legally justify his denials. Fels said they have to give you a financial quote and then it’s up to you to decide if you’re willing to pay it, that includes man hours and copies of pages but legally they cannot claim it’s too expensive or exhausting to collect what you’re requesting. 

Fels took Conley’s case because he believes government transparency is important – particularly when it comes to programs like 287(g), which have the potential to incur great liability on the county. 

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