Court orders release of redacted data without new request
D.C. CIRCUIT–A federal District Court should have ordered an agency to give a Freedom of Information Act requester redacted information that would cause no harm, even though the requester had not thought to ask for that service, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. ruled in early June.
Chief Judge Harry Edwards wrote for the three-judge panel that a federal District Court has an affirmative duty to order segregable portions of records released to an FOI Act requester.
Information on documents requested by the Trans-Pacific Policing Agreement exists in numerical codes in “entry numbers” kept by the U.S. Customs Service and in “harmonized tariff numbers” assigned by the importers to specific individual import transactions. Disclosure of the numbers would reveal proprietary secrets, Customs said.
The Trans-Pacific Policing Agreement, an association of ocean shippers that polices cargo, in September 1996 had asked Customs for documents filed on imports shipped into the United States. The Agreement intended to check the importer information against vessel manifests filed by foreign exporters.
Customs denied the request, a decision that was upheld in June 1997 by the federal District Court in Washington, D.C. The lower court agreed with the government that disclosure would cause competitive harm to individual importers.
Before the appeals panel, the Agreement for the first time noted that it did not actually need all fields of numbers in the codes. The government responded that disclosure of the numerical fields acceptable to the Agreement would not cause proprietary harm, but it said that the Agreement would have to file a new revised FOI request and begin the process again.
The Court of Appeals ordered Customs to provide the redacted numbers. The FOI Act clearly requires that agencies segregate out exempt information and provide non-exempt records, it said.
Importers code much of the information required by Customs numerically. An importer’s responses to fields for increasingly specific information comprise a “harmonized tariff number” that the importer assigns each individual transaction. Customs uses other information coded numerically to give an entry number to each transaction. (Trans-Pacific Policing Agreement v. U.S. Customs Service; requester’s attorney: Jeffrey Lawrence, Washington, D.C.)