A federal judge rubbished governmental secrecy concerns in a “brutal FOIA opinion” on Tuesday that referenced the cat face filter on Snapchat.
Senior U.S. Circuit Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit David B. Sentelle, a Ronald Reagan appointee, authored the decision in a case concerning an attack on an inmate with a screwdriver—finding in favor of the plaintiff and ruling against the Bureau of Prisons.
In 2013, Michael Evans was stabbed “multiple times with a Phillips-head screwdriver in the prison dining hall” by another inmate, according to the court’s recitation of the basic facts. Prisons are supposed to—though they often fail to—provide for the protection, safety and overall wellbeing of all inmates. So Williams had a plausible cause of action and sued.
“Following that incident, Evans sued the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act and individual officers employed at [the prison] under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging in both cases that the screwdriver was [the prison’s] property that the corrections officers failed to properly secure,” the opinion notes. “The Bureau disclaimed ownership of the tool, and those suits were dismissed.”
But while those lawsuits were still working their way through the legal system, Williams filed separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) claims in order to ascertain: (1) any and all information about the genesis and provenance of the modified screwdriver; and (2) the video of the attack.
“The Bureau [of Prisons] responded that it would cost approximately $14,320 to process Evans’s request,” the decision continues. “Due to the high cost, the Bureau allowed Evans the opportunity to reformulate his request.”
After Evans amended his request, the Bureau of Prisons said they had no information whatsoever related to the screwdriver but affirmed they did find the video—and chose not to release it by citing several statutory FOIA exemptions.
“Evans appealed the Bureau’s decision to the Office of Information Policy (OIP),” the court noted. “OIP determined that the surveillance footage was properly withheld under Exemptions (b)(7)(C), (b)(7)(E), and (b)(7)(F). It also stated that the Bureau ‘does not have the capability to segregate images potentially responsive to [Evans’s] request from the images of third parties on video recordings.’”
Evans appealed again and a district court shut him down again—relying on the government’s claim that they simply do not have the technology capable of providing responsive images without also infringing on other people’s privacy rights. People familiar with videos will realize the issue here.
Judge Sentelle realized said issue—and was not having it. Again the court:
The government further does not explain why it cannot by use of such techniques as blurring out faces, either in the video itself or in screenshots, eliminate unwarranted invasions of privacy. The same teenagers who regale each other with screenshots are commonly known to revise those missives by such techniques as inserting cat faces over the visages of humans. While we do not necessarily advocate that specific technique, we do hold that the government is required to explain why the possibility of some similar method of segregability is unavailable if it is to claim the protection of the exemption.
Judge Sentelle also dismissed the other FOIA exemptions claims—discounting the government’s claims that releasing the footage “would reveal…specific law enforcement methods employed” because then prisoners would know where the cameras were.
The decision accepted the government’s argument for the sake of argument—but ultimately concluded that such a plea was doomed by “vagueness and lack of specificity.”
The relatively succinct ruling ordered the lower court to reconsider Evans’ request for the videotape but agreed that the non-responsive request for the shiv/screwdriver information would necessarily have to fail.
“[Evans] has provided us with no reason to doubt the veracity of the prison officials’ response, nor has he presented anything to convince us that the screwdriver must have been prison property,” the judge concluded. “As far as we know, it is entirely plausible that the prison officials did not recognize the screwdriver because it was not prison property. Prisoners are capable of smuggling contraband into prison, including weapons and other material.”
Read the full opinion and ruling below:
[image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]