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Sheriff's criminal contempt upheld for open records violation

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Sheriff’s criminal contempt upheld for open records violation

  • The Court of Appeals of Tennessee upheld the criminal contempt conviction of a county sheriff for falsely responding to state open records requests.

June 2, 2004 — The Court of Appeals of Tennessee upheld the criminal conviction of a county sheriff last week for falsely responding to requests for public records under the state Public Records Act. The sheriff was fined $300 for six counts of criminal contempt of court.

In December 2001, Knox County Commissioner Wanda Moody requested records from County Sheriff Timothy Hutchinson relating to a number of projects allegedly being undertaken by the Knox County Sheriff’s Department. The Public Records Act requests sought documents pertaining to the construction of horse stables, a helicopter facility and other projects.

Hutchinson did not respond to the requests until Moody filed suit in Chancery Court in Knoxville. Hutchinson responded that the sheriff’s department did not maintain originals of some of the requested records and referred Moody to other county offices. He also claimed that no documents existed regarding the horse stables and other projects because the projects did not exist. In all, Hutchinson produced 22 pages in response to the requests.

After Moody complained to the court that the response was inadequate, the court allowed Hutchinson to amend his response. He then provided 15 boxes of records in no particular order, provided Moody and her attorney a 5-foot-by-5-foot space to inspect them, and required that they be video- and audio-taped while examining the records.

Moody again complained to the court, and on Jan. 28, 2002, Judge Daryl R. Fansler warned Hutchinson’s attorney to “explain to the sheriff that they either be produced or there will be a petition for contempt forthcoming.” On Feb. 19, Moody requested that the court hold Hutchinson in contempt for failing to comply with the request; the court set the matter for trial.

At trial, witnesses testified that many of Hutchinson’s assertions regarding the records had been false. Anthony Parker, a construction worker, testified that he had worked on the horse stable project, and that the sheriff’s department had been building the stables without authorization and had been using inmates to work on the project.

In a Feb. 12, 2003, opinion, Fansler concluded that Hutchinson’s responses to 23 of the 26 requests had been either “totally or partially false.” Because all of the requested records had eventually been disclosed to Moody over the course of the litigation, Hutchinson could no longer be found in civil contempt, but in six instances the court held that he was guilty of criminal contempt because there was “an additional element of obstruction of justice or interference with the processes of the court.”

Hutchinson was fined the maximum $50 for each of the six counts. Fansler declined to sentence Hutchinson to any jail time for the violation because it would be “a disservice to the citizens of Knox County.” The act authorizes up to 10 days in jail for each violation.

Hutchinson appealed, and on May 25 the Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the conviction. “If defendant had provided what he affirmatively represented that he had provided, then this case would have ended long ago,” wrote Judge D. Michael Swiney.

Moody also claimed that Hutchinson — and not the taxpayers of Knox County — should be required to pay the fine, alleging that the county had indicated it would pay. The court refused to rule on the issue because the county had not yet reimbursed Hutchinson and had not definitively decided to do so.

(Moody v. Hutchinson) GP

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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