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Judge rules detainees in state jails must be identified

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         NEW JERSEY         Freedom of Information         Apr 2, 2002    

Judge rules detainees in state jails must be identified

  • State law requires that information about people jailed in state institutions must be public, a judge held, even if they are held under contract with the federal government, but he stayed his decision so that the federal government could appeal.

Names of most persons jailed in connection with the events of Sept. 11 must be disclosed under New Jersey law, Superior Court Judge Arthur D’Italia ruled March 26 in Jersey City. However, D’Italia stayed his ruling for 45 days so the federal government, which argued against disclosure, could appeal.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sued Hudson and Passaic Counties in late January for the names and other information about detainees held in their jails. But jailers refused to identify federal prisoners housed there under contract with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Most of the federal detainees jailed after Sept. 11 are held in New Jersey jails under contract between INS and the jails.

INS officials said the detainees would be “stigmatized” if the public knew they were being held and that their names should be withheld to protect their privacy. The agency also claimed that release could jeopardize an ongoing federal law enforcement investigation and threaten public safety.

D’Italia read his opinion from the bench but copies were not available.

“Nothing is easier for the government to assert than that the disclosure of the arrest of X would jeopardize investigation Y,” wrote D’Italia, according to CBS News. “The INS inmates have no more expectation of privacy than do other inmates.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit in New Jersey is similar to a broader lawsuit filed in December by the Center for National Securities Studies, the national office of the ACLU and 16 other organizations including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press against the Department of Justice. That lawsuit says that the agencies failed to release information about the detainees in response to federal Freedom of Information Act requests.

Several provisions in New Jersey law call directly for release of certain information about prisoners. For instance, one statute directs jailers to record names and other descriptive details of persons jailed. It provides that the information”be exposed in a conspicuous place in the institution” and “be open to public inspection.”

Jim Edwards, a reporter for the New Jersey Law Journal, wrote that when the federal government opened its arguments recounting recent terrorism history, the judge interrupted the attorneys within seconds.

“Stressing the horrors of Sept. 11 doesn’t analytically help us very much,” he said. “You can go on and on about Sept. 11 and the present state of affairs, but that won’t help you.”

Edwards also reported that, when the government’s attorney argued that releasing names could create a stigma, D’Italia asked, “So Sept. 11 gives you a right to privacy that committing a sex crime does not?”

The Justice Department in late November disclosed the names of 93 persons who were then facing criminal charges in connection with Sept. 11. It made public charges faced by 548 other detainees listed by their country of origin, but it did not identify them.

(ACLU of New Jersey v. County of Hudson; ACLU Attorney: Edward Barocas, Newark) RD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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