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Richmond police reportedly drop case to retrieve FOIA docs

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  1. Prior Restraint
Attorneys for the recipient of police documents obtained through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act report that the city of…

Attorneys for the recipient of police documents obtained through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act report that the city of Richmond, Va., and its police chief intend to drop their court case seeking the return of the produced documents.

In December, Mo Karn — a "known and admitted anarchist," according to the city and police chief's court filings — received police documents from the city of Richmond through a FOIA request. The city provided the documents, some of which were redacted, in response to Karn's request for "a copy of the protocol/rules manual and roster for the Richmond Police Department." Karn subsequently posted the documents online.

Last week, the city and police chief filed suit against Karn in state court, seeking an emergency court order to require her to return the documents and to not disclose the information contained in the documents. Deputy City Attorney Brian Telfair's briefing asserted that the specific police records at issue should never have been released to Karn. The briefing argued that the records contained "tactical plans" for how the police force responds to different situations and that public disclosure posed a security risk for officers and the public. The briefing also argued that a department employee erred in releasing the documents without the chief of police's authorization.

Karn's attorneys, Rebecca Glenberg and Thomas Fitzpatrick of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia Foundation, filed their opposition briefing Jan. 7, asserting that the city's legal request was unfounded under Virginia's FOIA and the First Amendment. "[N]either FOIA nor any other statute prohibits Ms. Karn from possessing or disseminating records disclosed, even inadvertently, by a government body. The lack of any unlawful conduct is crucial," Karn's brief argues, because the court could not prohibit "lawful, non-tortious conduct."

The briefing also argued that a court order to prevent the publication of the records would constitute an impermissible prior restraint on speech under the First Amendment and questioned the effectiveness of any such order. Noting that the documents at issue were already published on the internet, the briefing stated that "[t]here is no putting the cat back in the bag."

The ACLU of Virginia's website reports that attorneys for the police no longer intend to pursue the case. However, Telfair could not be reached to confirm this, and a hearing on the city and police chief's emergency motion remains on the court calendar for Jan. 24.