North Port police sue private citizen over information request

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NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Public records advocates say the city of North Port is illegally withholding the names of police officers currently on paid leave. Our sources indicate those officers are caught up in an ongoing criminal investigation into a possible forced sex act on a woman committed at a party earlier this month.

Michael Barfield, a Sarasota paralegal for attorney Andrea Mogensen who represents Citizens for Sunshine, is being sued by the City of North port for demanding public records -- even though Barfield maintains that he "Didn't ask for anything related to the investigation."

What he says he does want to know is who is currently on paid leave from the city?

"There is nothing in the law that says who is on paid administrative leave is a state secret entitled to protection," Barfield says, though he does admit it's part of the bigger picture.

"In this case there is an allegation that one officer was on duty and handcuffed a woman against her will and raped her. There is a significant circumstance that the public is entitled to know what really is going on at the North Port Police Department," he says.

The North Port Police Department says there is a state statute that protects an investigation when officers are involved.

"There is protection under the Police Officer's Bill of Rights. We need to make sure we follow that part of the law," says City manager Jonathan Lewis.

How much protection is the question?  Lewis says once the names are released there's no going back. The city ultimately wants to make sure it doesn't get sued by the police union or the officers themselves.

"What the city has done is filed to basically have a judge decide if we are doing this correctly," Lewis says. "Do we give the records or do we hold them until the investigation is complete? We just want to make sure we follow the law correctly."

Barfield says the move by the city to sue him -- and their request that the judge make Barfield pay their legal fees -- is rare, and that there is plenty of precedent showing the names are not off limits.

"They claim they have more rights then the average citizen who is accused of misconduct," Barfield says. "I think that's wrong. I think that if you are a public servant then more scrutiny and more transparency is required then that of a private citizen."