Lexis Nexis - Case Brief

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Law School Case Brief

United States DOJ v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of Press - 489 U.S. 749, 109 S. Ct. 1468 (1989)


Congress exempted nine categories of documents from the broad disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. Exemption 3 applies to documents that are specifically exempted from disclosure by another statute. 5 U.S.C.S. § 552(b)(3). Exemption 6 protects personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. 5 U.S.C.S. § 552(b)(6). Exemption 7(C) excludes records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such materials could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. 5 U.S.C.S. § 552(b)(7)(C).


On the basis of information provided by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) compiles and maintains criminal identification records or "rap sheets" on millions of persons, which contain descriptive information as well as a history of arrests, charges, convictions, and incarcerations. After the FBI denied Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by respondents, a CBS news correspondent and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, they filed suit in the District Court seeking the rap sheet for one Charles Medico insofar as it contained "matters of public record." Since the Pennsylvania Crime Commission had identified Medico's family company as a legitimate business dominated by organized crime figures, and since the company allegedly had obtained a number of defense contracts as a result of an improper arrangement with a corrupt Congressman, respondents asserted that a record of financial crimes by Medico would potentially be a matter of public interest. Petitioner Department of Justice responded that it had no record of such crimes but refused to confirm or deny whether it had any information concerning nonfinancial crimes by Medico. The court granted summary judgment for the Department, holding, inter alia, that the rap sheet was protected by Exemption 7(C) of the FOIA, which excludes from that statute's disclosure requirements records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes "to the extent that the production of such [materials] . . . could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding, among other things, that district courts should limit themselves in this type of case to making the factual determination whether the subject's legitimate privacy interest in his rap sheet is outweighed by the public interest in disclosure because the original information appears on the public record.


Could the disclosure of the contents of an FBI rap sheet to a third party be reasonably expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" within the meaning of Exemption 7(C) and therefore is prohibited by that Exemption?




The court held that the fact that an event was not wholly "private" did not mean that an individual had no interest in limiting its disclosure. The privacy interest in a rap sheet was substantial. Whether an invasion of privacy was warranted had to turn on the nature of the requested document and its relationship to the basic purpose of the FOIA, which focused on the citizen's right to be informed about the government's actions. The news groups in this case did not intend to discover anything about the conduct of the agency, and response to the request would not shed any light on the agency's conduct. Thus, the public interest in release of a rap sheet was not the type of interest protected by the FOIA. The court held, as a categorical matter under § 552(b)(7)(C), that a third party's request for law enforcement records about a private citizen could reasonably be expected to invade that citizen's privacy, and that when the request sought no official information about the government, the privacy invasion was unwarranted.

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