Tag Archives: FOIA

Some Short Notes from D.C. – Update for August 7, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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TWO INTERESTING D.C. CIRCUIT RULINGS END LAST WEEK

The D.C. Circuit handed down a pair of rulings last Friday. One, the reversal of sentences (and in one case, a conviction) for four Blackwater contractors over a 2007 Baghdad massacre, was widely reported. The other, a case about prisoners’ waivers of FOIA rights, flew under the radar. Both are of significance to federal inmates.

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D.C. CIRCUIT SAYS 924(C) SENTENCE IN BLACKWATER CASE VIOLATES 8TH AMENDMENT

carriefgun170807The big news from the D.C. Circuit last Friday was the reversal of sentences for four Blackwater private security contractors who massacred 14 civilians after they mistakenly thought they were under attack on a Baghdad street. Buried in that decision is a holding of interest to federal prisoners with 18 USC 924(c) convictions, especially where those counts are stacked to result in horrendous sentences.

The contractors were armed with government-issued M4 rifles, which of course can be set to fire fully automatically. Because of that, each of the defendants – found guilty of committing a crime of violence with a gun – got a mandatory sentence of 30 years because the weapon was a machine gun.

Apparently, hanging the 924(c) machinegun sentence on the defendants was contentious, even in the Justice Department. The D.C. Circuit agreed, ruling that applying the mandatory 30-year sentence to the contractors – based “solely on the type of weapons… used – violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In its opinion, the Circuit tried mightily to limit the decision to the facts of the case: It notes the firearms were a type required by the government, the contractors all had prior unblemished military records and no other convictions, it was a war zone where snap judgment was the difference between life and death, the contractors did not choose to be on that street corner, but were ordered there by their commander, and they did not set out that day to blow away civilians. The Court also noted that when 924(c) was last amended, the concept of private contractors protecting U.S. diplomats was not envisioned.

overkill170807“Combining all of these considerations,” the appellate court said, “we conclude the mandatory 30-year sentences create the rare case that leads to an inference of gross disproportionality… None of the penological justifications our society relies upon when sentencing criminals — incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, or deterrence — are properly served here by a sentence whose length is determined solely based on the type of weapon used during the crime.”

The Blackwater case has a rare set of facts, and run-of-the-mill defendants – who, for example, use a submachine gun to rob a bank – are unlikely to get much love from the holding. However, now the 8th Amendment camel’s nose is inside the tent. It will be interesting to see whether 8th Amendment claims become a staple of 924(c) defense elsewhere in the country.

United States v. Slatten, Case No. 15-3078 (D.C.Cir., Aug. 4, 2017)

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D.C. CIRCUIT SAYS FOIA RIGHTS CANNOT BE WAIVED BY PLEA AGREEMENT

The government often demands, as a price for plea agreements, that defendants waive their right to pursue Freedom of Information Act requests.

Last Friday, the D.C. Circuit outlawed the practice, holding that the FOIA waiver is unconnected to any “legitimate criminal justice interest” and is void as a matter of public policy.

foia160930The Court said a “prosecutor is permitted to consider only legitimate criminal justice concerns in striking a plea bargain—concerns such as rehabilitation, allocation of criminal justice resources, the strength of the evidence against the defendant, and the extent of a defendant’s cooperation with the authorities… This set of legitimate interests places boundaries on the rights that can be bargained away in plea negotiations.”

While banning FOIA suits “may occasionally promote the government’s legitimate interest in finality,” the Circuit said, “they only do so by making it more difficult for criminal defendants to uncover exculpatory information or material showing that their counsel provided ineffective assistance. That argument takes the finality interest too far. After all, a defendant can never waive his right to bring a colorable claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, even though such claims undermine finality… FOIA plays a significant role in uncovering undisclosed Brady material and evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel, and in practice has led to uncovering records relevant to ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims, such as plea offers not communicated by defense counsel to clients.”

Price v. Dept. of Justice Attorney Office, Case No. 15-5312 (D.C.Cir., Aug. 4, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

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“Standing” Up for the FOIA – Update for April 7, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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YOU’VE GOT TO BE A PLAYER

The Freedom of Information Act is a pretty slick statute. Using FOIA, Joe Average Citizen can obtain all sorts of information from government agencies, quite often including information the government would rather Joe not have.

WHBeer170407Journalists used FOIA to get the FBI file on Dr. Martin Luther King. Hillary’s emails were released because of FOIA requests. The IRS targeting scandal erupted because of an FOIA request. And on a more individualized scale, a casual Freedom of Information Act request we made back in 1994 for an inmate with a life sentence resulted in his release 12 years later.

As an old law partner we once practiced with liked to say, you never know what’s under a rock until you turn it over. Picture the FOIA as the spud bar you use to turn over those rocks.

All is not roses, by any means. First, FOIA applies only to federal agencies, and then only to executive branch agencies. FOI the FBI? Sure thing. CIA? Why not? But you cannot use the FOIA to U.S. Probation Office documents (it’s a judicial branch agency) or to get into the Government Accountability Office files (the GAO is a legislative branch agency).

Redac170407The FOIA has some very restrictive deadlines for agencies to respond, which should ensure that requesters get their documents quickly. Anyone who’s ever filed an FOIA request knows that the agencies honor those deadlines in the breach. And why not? A requester’s only recourse is to sue, after which the agencies will drag their bureaucratic feet even more, and then finally send a few documents and tell the court that they have no idea what the requester’s beef is – he or she got the documents.

And the document response will be incomplete, and documents that are turned over will have words, sentences, paragraphs – sometimes the whole page – blacked out (“redacted” is the term the agencies use) because of one or another exemption from disclosure. That requires more litigation and more piecemeal response. We worked on one plain vanilla FOIA request filed with a U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI in 2009 that was finally fulfilled after seven years of litigation. Sadly, the Obama Administration – which promised to be the most “transparent” in history – was one of the least compliant with the FOIA.

Still, like the state lotteries tell us, you have to play to win. That’s why we were so bemused by a D.C. Court of Appeals decision this past week in an FOIA action brought by well-known post-conviction lawyer Jeremy Gordon and his non-profit arm, Prisology.

prisology170407Prisology sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons under the FOIA, charging that the BOP violated the statute because it did not publish inmate grievances and its responses, Federal Tort Claims Act lawsuit settlement information, and reports on compassionate releases it has recommended to courts. Prisology argued that a section of the FOIA requiring publication of agency final opinions, policy statements not published in the Federal Register, and administrative staff manuals, mandated that the BOP post up the omitted information on the Internet.

But you’ve gotta be a player first, and Prisology overlooked that. It seems the nonprofit never requested bothered to request any information under the FOIA – so it could be turned down – before filing its two-page lawsuit.

Earlier this week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reminded Prisology that it’s pretty basic first-year law school dogma that anyone bringing a lawsuit has to be able to allege concrete injury. Article III of the Constitution requires a “case or controversy,” and since the dawn of the Republic, that means that the party bringing the suit has to be able to allege it was injured.

player170407The Circuit noted that “Prisology’s complaint contains no allegation of injury, general or otherwise. Even if we inferred an injury to Prisology from the Bureau’s alleged failure to publish its records electronically, this would not differentiate Prisology from the public at large… Prisology made no request of the Bureau of Prisons before bringing suit and therefore received no denial from that agency.”

Prisology argued that its lawsuit “amounted to a request for particular information,” meaning that it has standing. “The argument goes nowhere,” the Circuit replied. “To the extent that a complaint may be seen as a request, it is a request for relief from a court. If the court denies the request, the plaintiff may appeal. But a court’s refusal to grant relief cannot confer Article III standing that otherwise does not exist.”

denied170407We’re rather surprised that the plaintiff made such a rookie mistake. To nonlawyers, “standing” might seem to be a frivolous formality, and the Court acknowledged that, even while expressing its own puzzlement at Prisology’s approach:

The result here may seem overly technical. But Prisology’s predicament is one of its own making. With little effort it may have been able to satisfy the requirements of Article III. The Supreme Court over the years has taken steps to clarify the law of standing. We would not muddy the waters in order to accommodate Prisology’s recalcitrance even if we had the power to do so, which we do not.

Prisology v. Bureau of Prisons, Case No. 15-5003 (April 4, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

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