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Siegmeister v. Johnson

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

February 20, 2018

Jeffrey A. Siegmeister, State Attorney for the Third Judicial Circuit of Florida, Appellant,
v.
L.J. Johnson, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

         On appeal from the Circuit Court for Columbia County. Wesley R. Douglas, Judge.

          Arthur I. Jacobs, Richard J. Scholz, and Douglas A. Wyler of Jacobs Scholz & Assoc., LLC, Fernandina Beach, for Appellant.

          Kevin K. Carson, Lake City, and Joseph W. Little, Gainesville, for Appellee.

          OSTERHAUS, J.

         Jeffrey A. Siegmeister, the State Attorney for the Third Judicial Circuit of Florida, appeals the final judgment entered for L.J. Johnson in a public records case. Mr. Johnson's attorney submitted a public records request to see and copy the state attorney's case file in a closed matter involving Mr. Johnson. Former State Attorney Robert L. "Skip" Jarvis, Jr., reviewed the file and acceded to the request within a week. He offered to make the records available at his main office in Live Oak where he had reviewed them. But his letter acceding to the request took another week to be delivered to Mr. Johnson's attorney in Lake City. Due to the delay, Mr. Johnson promptly sued State Attorney Jarvis claiming an unlawful refusal to provide the records under the Public Records Act, chapter 119, Florida Statutes (2010).

         The trial court ultimately held an evidentiary hearing and agreed with Mr. Johnson and awarded costs and attorneys' fees. The court based its finding of an unlawful delay principally upon the fact that State Attorney Jarvis's letter required Mr. Johnson's attorney to travel twenty-five miles to Live Oak to inspect and copy the records, instead of offering to make the records available at his local courthouse in Lake City. State Attorney Siegmeister, who succeeded Mr. Jarvis, appealed. We reverse and conclude that State Attorney Jarvis did not violate Florida's public records law by making the requested records available for inspection and copying at the main office of the State Attorney for the Third Judicial Circuit, instead of at an office closer to the requester's home.

         I.

         This appeal follows an earlier remand in Johnson v. Jarvis, 74 So.3d 168 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011). There, we reversed the trial court's dismissal of Johnson's chapter 119, public records complaint and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether there was an unreasonable delay in producing the requested records. Id. at 170-71.

         After remand, Kevin K. Carson, Mr. Johnson's attorney, testified at the hearing that he met with an Assistant State Attorney in Lake City, Florida, on January 26, 2011, to learn whether Mr. Johnson would be criminally charged as a result of an incident in which his firearm discharged at a local store. Mr. Carson was told at the meeting that the State wouldn't be filing charges, whereupon Mr. Carson made a public records request to inspect and copy the State Attorney's investigative file. The ASA responded by recommending that Mr. Carson write out his specific request, which he did, in his own name. He addressed the request to the "Records Custodian, State Attorney, Third Judicial [Circuit], " stating: "Please make available for inspection and copying all public records relating to [Johnson case]. This should include all information requested in my discovery request."

         The ASA told Mr. Carson that his request would be forwarded to State Attorney Jarvis in Live Oak. State Attorney Jarvis's job included being the public records custodian for the office. The office's public records policy provided that public records matters would be handled in the main State Attorney's office for the Third Judicial Circuit in Live Oak:

All requests to inspect or copy case files, active or inactive, shall be directed to the State Attorney. The State Attorney shall promptly review the case file to [e]nsure that there is no disclosure of active criminal intelligence information or criminal investigative information as defined in [c]hapter 119, Florida Statu[t]es, or other exempted documents such as autopsy reports or work product. Such information and documents shall be placed in a separate envelope, sealed, and marked as "exempt documents." In order to [e]nsure that exempt materials and documents are protected and that the State Attorney's obligations under the statute have been met, all public record requests shall be complied with at the main office of the State Attorney located at 100 S.E. Court Street in Live Oak, Florida.

(Emphasis added).

         After making the request, Mr. Carson stated that he checked his mail every day thereafter, but didn't receive a response from State Attorney Jarvis until two weeks later, on February 9, 2011. The letter, dated February 2, 2011, informed Mr. Carson that the file would be made available at his convenience at the State Attorney's office in Live Oak. Upon receiving the letter, Mr. Carson did not ...


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