Sunday, July 14, 2013

Jackson County sheriff denies request for helicopter records -- Attorney: Flight logs, fuel costs are public record

Pascagoula,  Mississippi --   Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd has denied the Sun Herald's request for flight records and fuel costs for the Sheriff's Department helicopters, though the law says the records are public. Byrd contends they are not, because drug-forfeiture money, not taxpayer money, is involved.

"The sheriff of Jackson County is a public body under the Mississippi Public Records Act," said Gulfport attorney Henry Laird, who specializes in First Amendment and public-access issues.

The same is true for forfeiture records. "As such, the sheriff has a duty to give the public and the press copies of all public records requested. The records the Sun Herald has requested are public records. For the sheriff to say flight records and fuel records are exempt is wrong. The same is true for forfeiture records. They are public record."

Cherie Ward, the sheriff's public information official, responded in writing to the Sun Herald's request to look at the records.

"Sheriff Byrd received your request for information about flight records and fuel costs of the helicopter," the statement said. "Sheriff Byrd said the fuel is paid for with drug forfeiture money. Sheriff Byrd also said flight records and logs are not public record. Sheriff Byrd added that only the Federal Aviation Administration can view flight records and logs."State law requires a public body to submit in writing the specific exemption they are relying on to deny the records request, but Byrd did not respond to repeated requests for him to cite the exemption he was relying upon when denying the request for records.

Charlie Mitchell, an attorney and assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and News Media at the University of Mississippi, said it "would be interesting to know what authority the sheriff cites for nondisclosure."

"As far as I know, flight records, logs and passenger lists on taxpayer-owned aircraft are public records," Mitchell said. "For example, activity of the governor's plane is routinely reported in Mississippi and other states.

"Too, I've never heard of expenditure of drug forfeiture funds being treated differently under the open records laws of the state as any other money going into the General Fund. State law says all records are public unless specifically exempted."

The Sheriff's Department has two helicopters, both military surplus.

All money needed to secure the helicopters, and to maintain and fly them, comes from money the Sheriff's Department gets when drug dealers forfeit the possessions they buy with drug money.

The first helicopter was purchased years before Byrd, now in his fourth term as sheriff, took office.

Byrd got the second helicopter in 2006 using drug-forfeiture money.

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