Coast Guard records search labeled ‘inadequate’
WASHINGTON, D.C.–Ruling that a Coast Guard records search was inadequate, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., unanimously held in late June that the Coast Guard abdicated its duty to search for records on a drug seizure in locations where it knew it was likely to uncover the requested information.
The appellate panel noted that agencies are required to make “more than perfunctory searches,” and to follow through on obvious leads. Although the Coast Guard’s records custodian searched files at the Office of Law Enforcement and a federal records center in New Jersey for a document listing the amount of drugs seized from an alleged smuggler, the appellate panel concluded that the search was inadequate because the record in the case contained “positive indications of overlooked materials.” The requested information was likely to be stored in places other than those searched, and the Coast Guard did not explain why it failed to search a Georgia records center, the court concluded.
Furthermore, the records custodian did not contact the captain of the cutter involved in the drug seizure, who was also a likely source of information regarding the location of the missing document. Such an inquiry is required, the court stated.
The appellate panel reversed the federal District Court in Washington, D.C., and remanded the case for further action.
The case arose following the conviction and sentencing of Carlos Valencia-Lucena on drug-trafficking charges after the seizure of cocaine-filled containers off the U.S. Virgin Islands. During the sentencing phase of the criminal proceeding, the amount of cocaine recovered by the Coast Guard cutter Mohegan was disputed, and Valencia-Lucena filed a discovery request aimed at rebutting the government’s evidence of the amount of cocaine recovered.
The discovery request was denied. Valencia-Lucena was sentenced to 235 months in prison.
Following his sentencing, Valencia-Lucena submitted two FOI Act requests. The Coast Guard responded to the first request by providing limited information. The second, more specific, request went unheeded for four years, although the Coast Guard did eventually respond, claiming that a reasonable search had failed to uncover any records. Valencia-Lucena then sued in federal court in Washington to compel the agency to respond.
(Valencia-Lucena v. United States Coast Guard)