ACLU Files Suit Against MO Highway Patrol for Stonewalling Hero Trooper's Family
Repeated Requests by Harper Family for Records Related to Unsolved Shooting Go Unanswered
Today, the ACLU of Missouri filed a Sunshine Law suit against the Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) and the McDonald County Prosecuting Attorney for failing to release public records related to the 1994 shooting of Corporal Bobbie J. Harper, an MSHP Trooper.
On Sept. 16, 1994, Cpl. Harper was shot in the chest at his home, allegedly by Timothy Coombs, following Cpl. Harper’s arrest of Coombs’ associate, Robert Joos, six weeks earlier. Cpl. Harper passed away on Apr. 3, 1996. Coombs was charged with the crime but was never apprehended and is believed to be deceased.
On April 18, 2012, Cpl. Harper’s family began requesting all MSHP records pertaining to the arrest of Robert Joos, the shooting of Cpl. Harper and the resulting investigation. After two years of having not received any records, the family submitted two Sunshine Law requests. In the first request, submitted July 13, 2015, the family sought records relating to Joos’ arrest. After two months of silence, the family followed up, and MSHP released some, but not all, of the responsive records. In the second request, submitted Sept. 28, 2015, the family sought records relating to Cpl. Harper’s shooting. This request was denied in its entirety. Cpl. Harper’s family then filed a Sunshine Law complaint with the Attorney General’s Office. Shortly thereafter, on Oct. 21, 2015, they received a call from the MSHP investigator assigned to the case inquiring about the family’s “motivations” behind pursuing the records. Seven days later, MSHP’s General Counsel told the family they could not see the records because the case was still active, despite the fact that criminal investigations are deemed inactive for purposes of Missouri’s public records law after ten years. On Nov. 1, 2015, the family requested records with any sensitive information redacted. The request went unanswered.
On Nov. 10, 2015, the family contacted McDonald County Prosecutor Bill Dobbs for copies of all records related to Coombs’ 1994 arrest warrant. On Mar. 23, 2016, Dobbs denied the request in writing after having notified the family that MSHP instructed him not to release any documents. The Harper family has yet to receive any of the remaining public records.
Corporal Bobbie Harper served 32 years as a state trooper. In April 1984, he was named the Department of Public Safety’s Employee of the Month for confronting an armed man who threatened to take his rifle into the McDonald County Courthouse to “help” his friend. Missouri Governor Christopher “Kit” Bond praised Cpl. Harper’s bravery at the awards ceremony as a shining representation of “the finest traditions of the Missouri Highway Patrol.” A portion of U.S. Highway 71 in McDonald County was renamed “Corporal Bobbie J. Harper Memorial Highway” in his honor.
“The Sunshine Law is clear and cannot be disregarded as government officials see fit. All Missourians are guaranteed access to public records upon request,” explains Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “The fact that the family of a fallen hero cannot obtain public records shines a light on just how far some government agencies will go to violate the law.”
“The Sunshine Law ensures that government officials cannot refuse to release public documents simply because they may cast them in a bad light,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. “The ACLU stands ready to remind all who have forgotten that fact.”
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