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INS can force states to keep detainees' names secret

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         NEW JERSEY         Secret Courts         Jun 13, 2002    

INS can force states to keep detainees’ names secret

  • A New Jersey court ruled that immigration officials could force state jails to keep identities secret even though the names might be available under the New Jersey open records law.

A three-judge appeals panel ruled June 12 that the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which under federal law has broad power to regulate immigration matters, can control whether state and local officials release information about detainees held under federal contracts in New Jersey jails.

Even if state freedom of information laws require release of information about people housed in local jails, regulation by the INS would supersede those laws, the state Superior Court Appellate Division panel ruled.

A lower court had ruled in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that a federal agency’s secrecy policy cannot be enforced if it violates state law.

However, after that ruling, the INS adopted regulations prohibiting states which jail detainees under contract from releasing information about them. Although the ACLU argued before the appeals panel that the INS had not followed administrative procedures in allowing the public notice and comment on these new rules, the appellate panel said the rules were appropriate, enacted quickly “for good cause.”

The panel said the federal regulation prohibiting disclosure preempts the state law requiring disclosure.

The appellate panel discussed at some length the federal government’s claims that release could cause harm. Some detainees might not want their names to be made public and releasing their names might jeopardize the safety of the detainees or their families, the court said. The court did not discuss any interest of New Jersey citizens in knowing who is jailed in their communities.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit challenging the secrecy policy in late November, requesting the names of all inmates held at the Hudson and Passaic county jails. In addition to the names of detainees, the ACLU’s request asked for their dates of entry, their ages and nationalities. The Justice Department argued that releasing the detainees’ names could help terrorist organizations.

The ACLU plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

(ACLU v. County of Hudson; Attorney: Ronald Chen, Trenton) RD

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