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Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Appellate Court Directs Trial Court to Review Relocated Witness Records Requested by FOIA

In 2020, an individual submitted a FOIA request to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO) seeking certain information related to victim/witness relocations. In response, the SAO provided certain non-exempt records, but withheld other records based on several asserted FOIA exemptions, including the personal privacy exemption as well as exemptions that apply to criminal and law enforcement records. The requestor sued the SAO claiming that the SAO violated FOIA by failing to prove that the withheld records were exempt from disclosure under the asserted exemptions. The trial court ruled in favor of the SAO, finding that the SAO sufficiently demonstrated that the withheld documents fell within the asserted FOIA exemptions.  

In Fields v. Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, although the appellate court acknowledged that the SAO’s affidavits emphasized the dangers of disclosing victim and witnesses identities, it held that the affidavits failed to demonstrate with reasonably specificity how or why disclosing certain records would lead to disclosing exempt information, (e.g., personally identifying information of witnesses and victims in the relocation program). As a result, the appellate court vacated the trial court's ruling in favor of the SAO and directed the trial court to conduct an "in camera" (private) inspection of the records to determine whether any records fall within the exemptions that were claimed by the SAO. The appellate court also invited the trial court to order the SAO to prepare an index of withheld information, which would assist and expedite the trial court’s review by: (1) detailing the nature or contents of withheld documents without disclosing the information deemed exempt by the SAO; and (2) containing a statement of claimed exemptions for each withheld document.

Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov, Ancel Glink


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