Public Access Opinion 20-005

Improper Refusal to Release Police Footage & Records

Freedom of Information Act - FOIA
Case: Public Access Opinion 20-005
Date: Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Summary: The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office violated FOIA when it improperly withheld records relating to a police chase.
On March 9th, 2020, the Requestor, a staff writer for the Rockford Register Star, submitted a FOIA request to the Rockford Sherriff’s Office (Sherriff’s Office). The request sought, “[a] copy of any squad car camera footage before, during, and after the Feb. 8, 2016, police chase and fatal crash that killed [a named individual], emergency dispatch audio concerning that case, crash and incident, and any written critique, review or report concerning the attempted traffic stop and fatal crash.”
A few weeks later, the Sherriff’s Office denied the FOIA request pursuant to Section 7(1)(d)(iii) of FOIA, citing a pending civil lawsuit related to the crash. The Sherriff’s Office said that, “disclosure would deprive both the County of Winnebago and [the] Sherriff’s Deputy…of their rights to a fair trial or an impartial judication.” Requestor then sent a Request for Review to the PAC to contest the denial of the request.
Section 7(1)(d)(iii) of FOIA exempts public bodies from disclosing information that might jeopardize a fair trial. Specifically, it states that, “[r]ecords in the possession of any public body created in the course of administrative enforcement proceedings, and any law enforcement or correctional agency for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that disclosure would…create a substantial likelihood that a person will be deprived of a fair trial or an impartial hearing” are exempt from disclosure. Under Section 1.2 of FOIA, any public body asserting that a record is exempt from disclosure must prove the exemption with clear and convincing evidence.
According to the PAC, the explanation from the Sherriff’s Office did not satisfy the requirements of Section 7(1)(d)(iii) of FOIA because the Sherriff’s Office did not provide any specific reasons as to why the disclosure of the materials requested would impede a fair trial or impartial hearing. For this reason, Sheriff’s Office did not demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the records were exempt from disclosure. The PAC ruled that the Sherriff’s Office violated FOIA, and it directed the Sherriff’s Office to comply with the request.
This opinion is binding only to the parties involved and may be appealed pursuant to State law.