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Judges send inmate records dispute back to trial court

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Nov. 28, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Nov. 28, 2006

Judges send inmate records dispute back to trial court

  • Citing unresolved factual issues, a federal appeals court says it cannot rule on a media group’s FOIA suit against the Department of Justice.

Nov. 28, 2006  ·   A trial court judge incorrectly dismissed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Justice brought by a news organization seeking documents related to the incarceration of illegal aliens, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Washington bureau of Cox Newspapers sued the Justice Department seeking access to a database that contained the name, birthdate and other identifying information of illegal immigrants convicted of at least one felony or two misdemeanor crimes who served prison time as part of their punishment. The agency denied the request, asserting that the release of such information would violate the privacy rights of the convicted individuals.

The lower court judge sided with the government and said a trial was not necessary. Last week, a panel of three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., said that there were unresolved factual disputes between the parties and therefore the judges could not assess the soundness of the legal rulings made by the lower court judge. The appeals court ordered the case back to the trial court for resolution of those factual issues.

“[T]he briefs and oral argument of each party questioned the factual accuracy of the other’s claims. Given these disputes, we are in no position to decide the important questions this case presents,” the court wrote.

For example, the Justice Department argued in the appeals court that it could not turn over information in the database because there was a chance that some individuals had been improperly listed as illegal immigrants. Cox, on the other hand, said the database was checked for accuracy and that it specifically avoided asking for information about a person unless the government had conclusively determined he or she was an illegal immigrant.

“A mistake in representing an inmate as an undocumented alien may implicate privacy interests,” the court wrote. “The accuracy of these factual assertions needs to be determined before this court can decide whether the Department properly invoked the privacy exemptions.”

(CEI Washington Bureau Inc. v. Dep’t of Justice, Media Counsel: Michael Kovaka and Jonathan D. Hart, Dow Lohnes, Washington, D.C.)NW

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