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Monday, April 8, 2024

PAC Finds Sheriff's Office in Violation of FOIA for Withholding Deceased Person's Records

In December 2023, an investigative journalist submitted a FOIA request to a Sheriff's Office seeking police reports about a person who went missing from a local hospital and was subsequently confirmed as deceased by a local coroners officer. The Sheriff's Office denied the request in its entirety claiming the responsive reports were highly personal and private, and the privacy interests of the parties involved in the reports outweighed the requestor and public interest in this information. 

The requestor submitted a request for review with the Illinois Attorney General's Public Access Counselor (PAC), claiming that because the missing person is deceased, the decedent has a diminished expectation of privacy and the circumstances surrounding how the decedent went missing is a matter of public interest. In its response to the PAC, the Sheriff's Office also argued that one of the reports was exempt from disclosure because the records related to an ongoing investigation and law enforcement proceedings.

In PAC. Op 24-006, the PAC concluded that the Sheriff's Office improperly withheld the responsive records in violation of FOIA. 

With respect to the Sheriff's Office claim that release would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy, the PAC balanced the journalist's and the public's interest in disclosure against the degree of invasion of personal privacy to the decedent’s family members and determined that the journalist and the public had significant interests in learning about the facts concerning the highly publicized disappearance and death of a missing person, and those interests outweighed the privacy interests of the decedent’s surviving family members.

The PAC acknowledged that the immediate surviving family members of a decedent possess distinct privacy interests in highly sensitive, gruesome, intrusive or anguish-inducing records concerning decedents (e.g., postmortem photographs of decedent’s body). However, the request at issue did not seek graphic images, recordings, or details, nor does the Sheriff's Office have any such responsive records. Instead, because the responsive records to this FOIA request concerned the Sheriff's Office investigation into decedent’s disappearance, which pertains to the public duties of the Sheriff's Office, the responsive reports were not exempt from disclosure in their entirety pursuant to FOIA exemption 7(1)(b) or 7(1)(c).

The PAC also rejected the Sheriff's Office argument that the public interest was diminished because there was no threat to the public, finding that the legitimate public interest in a highly publicized investigation into the disappearance of a community member was not diminished simply because the incidents did not involve threats or harm to the public at large.

The PAC also rejected the Sheriff's claim that the records would interfere with pending or contemplated law enforcement proceedings or obstruct an ongoing criminal investigation. 

Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov, Ancel Glink


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