The Polk County Sheriff’s Office is facing a civil lawsuit after the mother of a man who was incarcerated in the Polk County Jail seeks information through Sunshine Law requests following her son’s death last year.
And while the lawsuit is, on the surface, about compliance with Sunshine Law, there is more at stake.
The parties involved disagree on even the most basic facts surrounding the plaintiff’s case — most importantly, if 32-year-old Nathan Casey from Aldrich died while in custody.
The declaratory judgment lawsuit, originally filed in Polk County Circuit Court by St. Louis attorney Mark Pedroli late last year, asks a judge to intervene in what plaintiff Donna Casey-Schultz says are unfulfilled records requests from the sheriff’s office.
The case was transferred to St. Louis County Circuit Court in February after a change of venue motion was upheld by 30th Circuit Judge Michael O’Brien Hendrickson.
According to previous coverage, Casey was arrested by Polk County deputies on Tuesday, July 28, 2020, “on a warrant for violating parole.” Online court records state Casey had been placed on five years supervised probation after he had pleaded guilty to second-degree domestic assault in March 2018.
He was sentenced to 30 days shock incarceration with credit for time served for the alleged parole violation on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, per court records. Casey had been in jail six days at that point.
Pedroli’s petition says Casey “died in the custody of the Polk County Sheriff a week before he was to be released” on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, 15 days into his sentence.
The petition also says surveillance video footage at the jail captured Casey’s medical emergency, the response of Polk County Jail staff and the moments leading up to his death.
However, the answer to the petition filed by sheriff’s office attorney Greg Kinney paints a different picture.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office says Casey had a “medical emergency on Aug. 19, 2020, at the Polk County Jail and that these events were captured on video,” per the answer.
However, the sheriff’s office says Casey did not die while in custody. Instead, the answer says Casey died at the University Hospital in Columbia on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020.
An obituary for Casey, found on the Hedges-Scott Funeral Home website, provides the same information as the sheriff’s office.
The cause of and circumstances surrounding Casey’s death are unclear from court documents and his obituary.
Casey-Schultz formally filed Sunshine Law requests for information regarding her son on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, the same day he died per the answer and the obituary, and again this March.
In her requests, Casey-Schultz asks for “any and all audio and video” showing Casey in or around the Polk County Jail or the sheriff’s office at any point in 2020, all text messages on public and/or private cell phones of sheriff’s office personnel that refer to Casey “and/or the Nathan Casey incident that occurred on Aug. 19, 2020,” and all emails on the Polk County Sheriff’s Office server that refer to Casey, an incident involving Casey occuring at the jail, references to Casey’s inhaler, and communications with other police departments or other government agencies about Casey.
She also requested “all emails on the Polk County Sheriff’s email server sent or received between Aug. 19, 2020, and Sept. 1, 2020,” containing eight keywords — Nathan, Casey, asthma, inhaler, breathe, breathing, died and dead.
The petition says the Polk County Sheriff’s Office violated Sunshine Law by failing to produce these records relevant to the investigation of a civil claim.
In response to Casey-Schultz’s requests, Sheriff Danny Morrison said releasing video footage of the interior of the Polk County Jail would pose a “clear and present danger to the safety of deputies and correctional officers,” the petition states.
The sheriff’s office also denied the request for text messages sent via private cell phones because they said those do not fall under the purview of Sunshine Law, per the petition. However, the petition says the sheriff’s office checked the department’s only two publicly issued cell phones — used by Morrison and lead detective Lt. Billy Simpson — and found “nothing pertinent to this request.”
Per the petition, the sheriff’s office also said the department’s IT contractor would charge $100 per hour for around 15 hours of work to complete an email server search for the eight keywords.
In turn, the sheriff’s office said it could not comply with that request per Sunshine Law, which states fees for providing public records “shall not exceed the average hourly rate of pay for staff of the public governmental body required for making copies and programming, if necessary, and the cost of the disk, tape or other medium used for the duplication,” per the petition.
The petition says the sheriff’s office “knowingly and purposefully violated the Sunshine Act and will continue doing so unless restrained and enjoined by the court.”
It asks the court to find the Polk County Sheriff’s Office in violation of Sunshine Law and issue a restraining order and injunction ordering the office to produce all documents and records, as well as assess civil penalties and award Casey-Schultz for costs and reasonable attorney’s fees incurred.
The answer filed by the sheriff’s office denies any wrongdoing and asks for the case to be dismissed.
Currently, there are no hearing dates set for this case, per online court records.