Attorney: JSO is flouting public records law in jail beating

John Phillips claims agency did not preserve evidence of client's attack

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An attorney for a man who says he was beaten in the Duval County jail by another inmate claims the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has destroyed public records related to the case.

On Thursday, attorney John Phillips called for an investigation into how the Sheriff’s Office has handled records linked to the attack on his client, Gordon Shutt. Phillips said the agency has given contradictory responses to his requests and has not handed over any records.

"I'm challenging and informing Sheriff (Mike) Williams—hey, I sent you letters and that didn't work, maybe this forum will,” said Phillips, who plans to file a lawsuit in the case. "I want you to see the face of someone who was beaten in your jail and has his mouth wired shut."

A spokesperson said Williams was unavailable for comment Thursday.

LISTEN: JSO discusses public records retention with News4Jax

Shutt, 29, was arrested April 16 for driving with a suspended license and booked into the jail. Phillips said his client was beaten by another inmate while trying to call his girlfriend for a ride home. Despite suffering a concussion, broken bones and a displaced jaw, Shutt was denied medical care, Phillips said.

"JSO has no duty under Florida law to preserve records in response to a demand/request to do so unless it expressly promises/agrees to do so." Stephen Powell, Office of General Counsel

When he was released the next day, Shutt went to Baptist Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with several facial fractures and had surgery to wire his jaw shut. A week later, he hired Phillips' firm, which made repeated requests over the next three weeks for records in the case, including surveillance video.

Shutt, a Marine Corps veteran, said the situation has not only changed his life physically—he no longer has feeling in the right side of his face—and financially—he has racked up nearly $200,000 in medical bills—but it also completely shifted his outlook on law enforcement.

"I've always respected police officers," he said. "This whole experience showed me a nasty underbelly of a situation when it seems like everyone needs to cover themselves. It’s like turning a light on in a room full of rats or something and everyone just scurries away when I needed help the most."

Phillips said he got a call May 23 from a public records worker in response to the requests, saying video may have been erased because JSO didn’t "get to it" within a 30-day window. The same day, he said, a records supervisor called and said the first employee misspoke about the video’s existence.

The next day, Phillips sent a letter to the sheriff and Mayor Lenny Curry about the agency’s initial response to his requests, noting that a public records worker said the video was "destroyed" after 30 days because JSO preserves evidence "in the order in which it can be processed."

In his letter, Phillips wrote that deletion of the video was the illegal destruction of evidence of a crime, "negligence and civil rights violations against Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the City of Jacksonville and others. This is a horrific policy and procedure, which must be investigated and remedied."

Phillips received a response June 5 from Stephen Powell, an attorney with the city’s General Counsel’s Office, which said in part: "JSO has no duty under Florida law to preserve records in response to a demand/request to do so unless it expressly promises/agrees to do so," citing case law.

Two days later, Phillips fired back with a letter saying the case law cited by JSO and the city do not apply to Shutt’s case. He quoted the sheriff’s public remarks in July 2017: "It doesn’t matter who makes the request. It doesn’t matter what the request is. We have an obligation by law to fulfill that request."

Past public records dispute

This isn’t the first time Phillips has clashed with JSO over public records . In July 2017, he sounded the alarm after getting a hefty quote in response to a request for 10 years of records on how the agency disciplined officers, including one whose patrol car struck and killed a man.

"When [the Sheriff’s Office] kills someone and then sends a $314,000 bill for public records, when they know they kept a bad officer on the force. #shame," Phillips tweeted at the time. He raised concerns that the price tag might have a chilling effect on future records requests.

Undersheriff Pat Ivey defended the quote, noting that it included the time, resources and staff required to review every record covered by the request and to make any necessary redactions: “This can create a good faith estimate that appears to be exorbitant."

"JSO got this wrong and we demand an explanation and an investigation," said Phillips, who asked Powell to forward his complaint to JSO’s Integrity Unit, the city’s Ethics Commission, the State Attorney’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Attorney General’s Office.

It wasn't until Tuesday that Phillips said he informed by JSO that the agency has no record of any "assault, fight or altercation" related to his records requests.

Even though Williams was not available Thursday, JSO Assistant Chief Annie Smith, of the Department of Professional Standards, spoke with News4Jax on the phone. She said JSO's camera system records over itself every 30 days unless the agency is notified that video needs to be set aside for a records request.

While JSO does not have a standing policy for footage requests, Smith said, the agency routinely pulls and preserves footage requested within that 30-day window as a courtesy to attorneys until they can get a court order to obtain the video. That includes footage recorded at the jail.

"We have liaisons at the jail, so when that request comes in, the public records coordinator will notify our liaison at the jail who is responsible for pulling and preserving the videos," she said, acknowledging that it would be reasonable for such a notice to be made within three weeks of the records request.

It's unclear why that did not happen in Shutt's case. Documentation provided by Phillips shows his office made at least four records requests for footage—April 25, April 29, May 13 & May 14—within 30 days of Shutt’s arrest, well before the video would have typically been wiped out.

News4Jax Crime and Safety Expert Ken Jefferson, who worked for JSO for 24 years, including time as a public information officer, questioned why Shutt did not receive medical attention. He also wondered why the agency hasn't produced the requested records.

"My question would be, why wouldn't you want to release the records?" Jefferson said. "If you're relieving yourself of any kind of liability and you feel that you're right and you've done everything the right way, why wouldn't you want to release the video to the requesting person in this case?"

About the Authors:

Lynnsey Gardner is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning investigative reporter and fill-in anchor for The Local Station.