ST. LOUIS (CN) – Lawyers for three Arkansas sheriff’s deputies accused of privacy violations over the release of records about sex abuse claims against “19 Kids and Counting” reality TV star Josh Duggar argued Wednesday before the Eighth Circuit that they are entitled to qualified immunity.
The plaintiffs, four of Duggar’s sisters, originally sued In Touch Weekly, Washington County, Arkansas, the city of Springdale, and the three officers, alleging invasion of privacy.
In Touch, Washington County and Springdale were all dismissed as defendants, but the individual officers – Rick Hoyt, Kathy O’Kelley and Ernest Cate – were not.
The Duggar sisters say they were all under the age of 16 when Springdale police began investigating allegations that they had been sexually assaulted by their brother Josh. All five of them claim police investigators promised their statements would remain confidential and would not be disclosed to the public.
The statute of limitations barred criminal charges from being filed against Josh.
Jason Owens, an attorney representing Hoyt, told the three-judge panel Wednesday that his client was the last to release the information.
“Officer Hoyt released the redacted report a day after the city released the report,” Owens told the Eighth Circuit judges.
Owens, of Rainwater, Holt & Sexton in Little Rock, said Springdale released the information by email while Washington County, Hoyt’s employer, released it by regular mail.
Owens also argued that qualified immunity is based on what is reasonable to the public official. He said Arkansas legislators passed a law addressing this situation after the lawsuit was filed.
The law states that arrest records pertaining to adults who commit crimes as a minor are exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests.
“Why amend the statutes if they are already clear?” Owens said.
Attorney R. Justin Eichmann, representing O’Kelley and Cate, argued that the district court applied too broad of a view in denying qualified immunity to his clients.
“It was a redacted report in which people on the internet guessed who the people were based on the information given by the city and the county,” Eichmann, who is with Harrington, Miller, Kieklak, Eichmann & Brown, told the court.
The Duggar sisters are represented by Sarah Coppola Jewell, who argued that the district court was correct in denying immunity because of the nature of the infraction.
“These officers were specifically assigned to handle Freedom of Information Act requests. … A reasonable officer would know you cannot disclose information on sexual assault victims or minors or both,” Jewell told the Eighth Circuit panel.
Jewell, who is with the Daniels Law Firm in Fayetteville, Arkansas, laid out the timeline of the accusations in an attempt to show that her clients had a reasonable expectation for privacy.
She said that the incidents were not reported when they allegedly occurred in 2002 and 2003. Instead, a tip in 2006 led law enforcement to start investigating. Her clients were taken to a “safe space” and were told that their statements would remain confidential. No charges were ultimately filed due to the statute of limitations, adding to the expectation of privacy, the attorney said.
Jewell told the court their statements were not made public until 10 years later in a poorly redacted document. She said even though her clients’ names were redacted, easily traceable information such as their parents’ names weren’t. Adding to her clients’ humiliation, she said, were the explicit details contained in the documents regarding the alleged abuse.
“State law is absolutely clear that requested information about minors is not to be disclosed,” Jewell said.
It is unclear when the Eighth Circuit will issue a decision in the case. The panel was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judges Lavenski Smith, Roger Wollman and Steven Grasz.
Josh Duggar became a household name by virtue of being the first of the “19 Kids and Counting” celebrated on the TLC reality show of the same name.
The network canceled the show in July 2015, two months after In Touch Weekly began publishing investigative reports detailing the 2006 child molestation investigation.