Public Access Opinion 16-009

Redacting and Withholding Information Concerning a Criminal Complaint Filed by Public Official

Freedom of Information Act - FOIA
Case: Public Access Opinion 16-009
Date: Monday, November 7, 2016

Though a public body provided copies of and properly exempted portions of some records responsive to FOIA requests from multiple requestors for information concerning a criminal complaint filed by a then-public official, the public body violated FOIA by improperly redacting and withholding other responsive records.

In redacting/withholding certain records, the public body invoked exemptions under FOIA Sections 7(1)(b), 7(1)(c), and 7(1)(d)(v). Section 7(1)(b) exempts private information from disclosure, and the PAC found that the public body properly withheld the account identification number and Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) for the public official’s Facebook page as private information. It found, however, that the public official’s Facebook and Skype account names could not be withheld because they are akin to or derived from his legal name.

Section 7(1)(c) exempts from disclosure personal information which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. The PAC found the public body properly withheld the public official’s birth date, which it considers “highly personal by its very nature.” It also found the public body properly withheld portions of statements the public official made to police regarding the extortion crime he was a victim of, as well as the identities of suspects who were private citizens. The PAC, however, found that the public body should have disclosed the amounts of money involved in the extortion, especially because the public official had publicly acknowledged that he was extorted.

Section 7(1)(d)(v) exempts from disclosure law enforcement records that would disclose unique investigative techniques and which would result in demonstrable harm to the public body. Here, the public body withheld records pertaining to unique investigative techniques for gathering information from electronic and social media sources. The PAC found that disclosing such information would result in harm because it could enable perpetrators to evade detection. In contrast, the PAC found that the public body had improperly redacted information regarding routine investigative steps. Finally, the PAC found the public body had properly refused to disclose search warrants when the search warrants themselves expressly prohibited their disclosure.

The PAC ordered the public body to immediately disclose the non-exempt portions of additional records responsive to the requests. This opinion is binding only to the parties involved and may be appealed pursuant to State law.