Nonprofit sues Presidio sheriff over access to jail records

MARFA — A Texas nonprofit is suing Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez after the group says it struggled to get timely records on who he was keeping in the county jail.

The Texas Fair Defense Project, a group that fights against the criminalization of poverty, last month filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Dominguez in Presidio district court. The filing asks a judge to order the sheriff to immediately release a detailed roster of the jail, including all inmates’ names and information on their bonds and immigration holds.

It also asks the judge to declare that jail roster information is in fact “a public record” and that Sheriff Dominguez has to release it within 24 hours of a request. Dominguez did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.

The lawsuit stems from a disagreement between the Texas Fair Defense Project and Sheriff Danny Dominguez over an open-records request. In May, the group emailed the Presidio County Jail to ask for “the current jail roster at the Presidio County Jail.”

In their request, the group included legal arguments that “jail rosters are public records under Texas law.” Access to public records has been a hallmark of journalism and activism since 1967, when the Freedom of Information Act, a landmark transparency law, went into effect. Texas state lawmakers adopted their own version of the law in 1973.

Dominguez apparently wasn’t  sure about the request, though. He asked the Texas attorney general’s office for its opinion on several aspects of the case, including whether “a public citizen’s date of birth [is] considered confidential.” Such a move is standard: under state law, any government officials who believe they shouldn’t release certain documents are supposed to file an appeal with the Texas AG’s office, which then gives a secondary opinion.

In a legal response of his own, Dominguez argued that releasing the requested information could jeopardize inmates’ rights to privacy, infringing on — for example — the “constitutional right to visit with outsiders.” He said he believed “the rights of those individuals to privacy” outweighed “the public’s interest in this information.”

Regardless, many counties across Texas and the country do offer easy public access to jail inmate records. Houston’s Harris County, for example, operates a website where people can search for inmates based on names and other information.

Meanwhile, the Presidio County sheriff’s office regularly publishes the names and photos of arrestees on its Facebook page. Since May, they’ve publicly posted names, photos and alleged crimes for at least seven inmates, on charges ranging from arson to marijuana crimes. But those posts don’t contain other information the Texas Fair Defense Project is asking for, including birthdates and the status of immigration holds.

In a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Texas attorney general’s office said it had not issued an opinion on the matter and did not “have a pending opinion request from Sheriff Dominguez.” The office was “unable to locate” any such requests from Dominguez, the spokesperson said.

However, the office did point to two “catastrophe notices” from Presidio County — one in May and another in June. Such notices allow government entities to “suspend the applicability of the requirements of the Public Information Act” so long as that entity is “currently impacted by a catastrophe,” according to the AG’s office.

In an interview, Nathan Fennell, a lawyer for the Texas Fair Defense Project, said the group was asking for information that is “obviously public records.”

“From our perspective, the question we’re asking is very straightforward: does the sheriff have to release who’s in jail and what they’re in jail for?” he said. “We think the law is extraordinarily clear on this point.”

Fennell declined to comment on why his organization was interested in Presidio Jail logs, noting that the case was already in litigation and the fact that requestors are not required by law to explain why they want records. But he again stressed that such records should be available for public review.

“I would just reiterate that the public absolutely has a right to know who is being held in our county jails,” he said. “This should be a very uncontroversial question.”