Police officers have no constitutional 'right of privacy' in records of their official misconduct

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


Should be pretty obvious (as I noted when the trial court decision in this case was handed down), but it had to be litigated to the Missouri Court of Appeals. From today's Chasnoff v. Mokwa decision (some paragraph breaks added):

Scalpers sold tickets to the 2006 World Series in apparent violation of a then-existing municipal ordinance. The St. Louis police seized the tickets as evidence. After some of the tickets were used to admit persons to the World Series, some of the citizens from whom police had seized the tickets complained to the police department.

The department investigated and disciplined certain police officers for their misconduct in the handling of evidence. [Text moved:-EV] The [police] investigation revealed that a number of World Series tickets seized from arrestees were used by other persons and then placed in the evidence storage area of the police department's vice and narcotics division. Of 98 confiscated World Series tickets, 31 tickets were used, and investigators learned that several police officers had allowed family members and friends to use the tickets. At the investigation's conclusion, the police department disciplined 16 police officers, with penalties ranging from written reprimand to suspensions and demotions in rank. IAD found that these police officers failed to obey rules for proper handling of evidence, engaged in conduct unbecoming an officer, or violated department procedures. The trial court found that it did not appear from the record that any of the police officers contested the discipline imposed….

John Chasnoff requested records of the investigation pursuant to Missouri's Sunshine Law. The Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis ordered the production of 59 specific records and awarded attorneys' fees to Chasnoff. Because we conclude that the police officers lack a protectable privacy interest in these records of their substantiated on-the-job police misconduct, we affirm the judgment ordering the records' release. Because the trial court properly awarded attorneys' fees due to a knowing violation of the Sunshine Law, we affirm the award of attorneys' fees….

The police officers assert on appeal that the trial court erred in concluding that they have no enforceable constitutional, statutory, or common-law right to privacy in disciplinary records pertaining to their official duties….

We need not define the precise contours of a public employee's private, personal information. Here, the police officers have never identified anything even arguably of a purely personal character in the disputed records. We have examined the record on appeal thoroughly. We have found neither pleading nor proof that the records contain any personal or private facts. Rather, this is simply a case of substantiated on-the-job misconduct, namely the misuse of evidence. The police officers who testified at trial identified no reason for preventing the records' disclosure or any damages they would suffer other than their own embarrassment.

"The clear purpose of the Sunshine Law is to open official conduct to the scrutiny of the electorate." "The overarching purpose of the Sunshine Law is one of open government and transparency." The information that the police officers seek to suppress is precisely the type of information that the Sunshine Law operates to open. The police officers have no right under the Sunshine Law, the U.S. or Missouri Constitutions, common law, or Missouri statutes to compel closure of public records regarding the officers' substantiated misconduct in the performance of their official duties….

Seems quite right to me.