Court won’t allow disclosure of names of accused in customs case
FLORIDA–A federal District Court in Miami rejected Congressional findings in the Electronic Freedom of Information Improvements Act of 1996 regarding the public interest served by the FOI Act. In doing so, it refused to acknowledge the congressional intent for how the FOI Act is to be used that was spelled out in reports by both the House and Senate.
Citing the privacy exemptions to the FOI Act, Judge Federico Moreno in early November refused to order the U.S. Customs Service to give Coral Gables attorney Michael O’Kane names and addresses of individuals charged with violating the law in certain Customs forfeiture cases, cases similar to other cases O’Kane routinely handles.
The judge ruled that the privacy interests of the persons charged outweighed the public’s interest in disclosure.
In 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in passing the FOI Act Congress had intended it to be used only to show “what the government was up to.” In that case the court said that Congress would not have intended for the government to open up the criminal history records of a defense contractor in response to an FOI request. Disclosure would intrude upon personal privacy and would show nothing about the operations or activities of government, the only public interest to be considered in balancing considerations of privacy and public interests, the high court said.
In late 1996 Congress specifically rejected the high court’s description of its intent in passing the FOI Act. The findings and purposes section of the amended law states that the FOI Act requires disclosure of government information “for any public or private purpose.” Both House and Senate reports accompanying the amendment specifically reject the Supreme Court’s limited assessment of Congress’ intent. Moreno, however, wrote that he rejected “out of hand” O’Kane’s arguments pointing to Congress’ clarification of its intent. The District Court said the amendments were designed to enhance public access to agency records and information through the use of new technology and that there was “no indication” that it “intended to enlarge the scope of the public interest served by the FOI Act.” (O’Kane v. U.S. Customs Service; Attorney: Michael O’Kane, Coral Gables)