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Government must disclose who buys seized properties

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         MARYLAND         Freedom of Information         Feb 15, 2001    

Government must disclose who buys seized properties

  • A federal district court ruled the law enforcement privacy exemption to the federal FOI Act does not apply to people who freely participate in sales by the Marshal Service.

The U.S. Marshals Service must give The Baltimore Sun the names and addresses of people who purchase real estate, cars and other property seized by the U.S. government and other information about the property, a federal district court in Baltimore ruled Feb. 13. The court rejected the argument by the government that releasing that information would violate the privacy of the purchasers.

Sun reporter Jim Haner in 1998 requested records on sales of seized assets in Maryland, citing a growing trend of drug dealers laundering money through the purchase of cars and real estate.

But the Marshals Service, which disposes of properties seized by federal law enforcement agencies, redacted the records to show only general descriptions, such as “real property” and the city, county or zip code in which it was located. It later provided more information on commercial properties but continued to claim other disclosures would intrude upon privacy and that the information was exempt under the privacy arm of the FOI Act’s law enforcement exemption.

Although the court recognized a whole line of cases in which the privacy of witnesses, informants and government employees had been categorically protected from disclosure by the exemption, it said that purchasers of property do not have any similar privacy interests that would merit categorical secrecy.

Purchasers might prefer not to have their identities revealed, the court said, but “preference alone is not a persuasive privacy interest.” These purchasers voluntarily choose to participate in sales from the U.S. government in wholly legal commercial transactions and have little to fear in the way of harassment, annoyance or embarrassment, the court said.

(Baltimore Sun v. U.S. Marshals Service; Media Counsel: Mary Craig, Towson, Md.) RD

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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