The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records has posted Cambria County Judge Krumenacker’s Opinions and Orders in the matters listed below.  Click here for access:

  2017-0050

  2017-0534

  2017-0399

2017-0050 06/29/2017 DeBartola v. Cambria County District Attorney’s Office Request sought various records relating to drug expenditures and employee information.
2017-0534 06/22/2017 DeBartola v. Cambria County Request sought DUI account information and audit reports
2017-0399 04/25/2017 DeBartola v. Cambria County District Attorney’s Office Request sought various records related to asset forfeiture accounts.

The purpose of this new blog is to inform lawyers, business managers, educators, concerned citizens, journalists, and government officials about the legislation passed in 2008 by the Pennsylvania Legislature known as the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law, a/k/a PA Open Records Law. We will provide interpretations and applications of that law in court opinions and in decisions by the Office of Open Records (OOR). We will also include insights and commentary on the law by the OOR, practitioners, government officials and academics.

The OOR was created by the PA Right to Know Law (RTK Law) as the state agency that makes the initial decision upon an appeal by a party seeking public records who believes that a government agency did not comply with the law in terms of providing the public records requested.

This blog is a work in progress, and may include references to compare similar statutes in other states and on the federal level. Attorney Francis J. Catania is the principal editor of this blog and Francis G.X. Pileggi is a contributing author.

 

For anyone interested in knowing more about the PA Right to Know Law (RTK Law), the first step should be the website of the PA Office of Open Records (OOR). The website of the OOR has a wealth of information, such as links to:

(i) the text and legislative history of the PA RTK Law;

(ii) a list of key decisions of the PA Supreme Court and Commonwealth Court interpreting the PA RTK Law;

(iii) searchable database of decisions on the PA RTK Law;

(iv) an opportunity to subscribe to a service by which the OOR emails a list of decisions made by the OOR, usually at least once each week; and

(v) links to additional sources with information about the PA RTK Law and related types of law and commentary.

It remains useful to compare how the PA RTK Law compares to similar laws in other jurisdictions.  Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) statutes in the State of Delaware, and also the federal counterpart statute do not generally allow access to criminal investigations.  FOIA is the name given to many RTK laws in other states.

Brief Overview

The premise of both the federal and Delaware state FOIA laws is that public business should be conducted in an open and public manner, and thus members of the public are generally entitled to records from public entities. However, that entitlement is not absolute. Both federal and state laws have enumerated exemptions to what constitutes a public record. Neither statute, however, provides anything akin to the PA Office of Open Records.

  •  Under Delaware FOIA laws, criminal files and records pertaining to potential litigation and are not subject to disclosure.

21 Del. C. § 10002(l)[1] of the Delaware FOIA law lists several types of records that are not deemed, for purposes of this statute, “public records,” including:

(4) Criminal files and criminal records, the disclosure of which would constitute an invasion of personal privacy. Any person may, upon proof of identity, obtain a copy of the person’s criminal record. All other criminal records and files are closed to public scrutiny. Agencies holding such criminal records may delete any information, before release, which would disclose the names of witnesses, intelligence personnel and aids or any other information of a privileged and confidential nature.

(9) Any records pertaining to pending or potential litigation which are not records of any court.

21 Del. C. § 10002(l) (emphasis added). In summary, FOIA prevents the disclosure of criminal files and criminal records, and any records pertaining to pending or potential litigation.

  • Criminal Files & Criminal Records

The privacy concerns of witnesses, informants, and defendants themselves prevent the disclosure of criminal records and criminal files through FOIA. Del. Op. Atty. Gen. 10-IB13 (Del.A.G.), 2010 WL 4154565.

[T]he criminal records exemption of section 10002 makes a distinction between “criminal files” and “criminal records.” While any person may obtain a copy of his/her criminal record, subject only to an agency’s authority to withhold certain information contained in the criminal record, “criminal files” are closed; there is no exception in the statute. . . . But other policy concerns expressed by the statute remain. Witnesses frequently speak to authorities on condition of anonymity, or at least with an expectation that their information will be held in confidence with law enforcement. That expectation does not suddenly expire with the completion of the criminal case. In addition, criminal suspects are often arrested by law enforcement when they are not performing at their best. The embarrassment of their behavior often causes them to plead guilty rather than expose their misbehavior to public scrutiny. Thus, the privacy concerns of witnesses, informants and defendants themselves are each implicated by a reading of the statute that would except closed criminal files from the FOIA exemption for criminal files.

Id.

An arrest record is categorized as a criminal record and is exempt from disclosure. Although records relating to the recovery of a handgun, for example, is not clearly identifiable as a criminal record, it may be considered part of criminal file and at the very least, records such as witness statements would be exempted from disclosure for policy concerns. Even if all of the records relating to the recovery of a handgun are not deemed part of a criminal file, as explained below, the records fall within another exemption of the statute.

  • Pending or Potential Litigation

A litigant may not use FOIA to obtain information from the Delaware State Police to use in trial. Public Defender v. State Police, 2003 Del. Super LEXIS 111 at **8-9 (Del. Super. Mar. 31, 2003). In Public Defender v. State Police, the Superior Court held the Public Defender’s Office[2] was not entitled to records from the State Police because “[w]hile the Public Defender’s clients mostly are Delaware citizens and while some of them might be especially curious about the state police training and methods, their interest in the materials is not related to the public’s right to know. Their legitimate interest concerns pending or potential litigation, which is exempt from the Act.” Id.

The Delaware Attorney General’s Office and Delaware courts have consistently held that “FOIA’s pending/potential litigation exemption is designed to maintain a level playing field: a party or potential party to litigation cannot use FOIA to obtain information in lieu of the rules of civil discovery. ‘Delaware courts will not allow litigants to use FOIA as a means to obtain discovery which is not available under the court’s rules of procedure.’” Del. Op. Atty. Gen. 06-ID21 (Del. A.G.), 2006 WL 3113705 (quoting Mell v. New Castle County, 835 A.2d 141, 147 (Del. Super. 2003)); see also Del. Op. Atty. Gen. 04-IB20 (Del.A.G.), 2004 WL 2951950 (“The exemption applies when [i]t is exclusively about litigators and litigants looking for materials that might help them in court.”) (internal citations omitted).

Requesting records from the State Police on behalf of a client to aid in litigating a case, is the exact purpose for which the Delaware Legislature forbade FOIA from being used. One cannot obtain records through FOIA when the sole purpose for obtaining them is to search for evidence that may assist in the course of litigation, even if the requested records do not constitute criminal files or criminal records.

  • Under federal laws, disclosure of investigation records would constitute an unwarranted invasion of person privacy and are therefore exempt from disclosure.

Similar to the Delaware statute, the federal FOIA exempts:

records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information (A) could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings, (B) would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication, (C) could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, (D) could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source

5 U.S.C. § 522(b)(A)(7). The United States Supreme Court has held that “as a categorical matter that a party’s request for law enforcement records or information about a private citizen can reasonably be expected to invade that citizen’s privacy, and that when the request seeks no ‘official information’ about a Government agency, but merely records that the Government happens to be storing, the invasion of privacy is ‘unwarranted.’” Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press, 489 U.S. 749, 780 (1989).  In other words, law enforcement records about a private citizen are not subject to disclosure under FOIA.

The ATF[3], by way of example, requires a lawyer to have a client verify his or her identity pursuant to 28 C.F.R. § 16.41(d) before the agency can process a request. If one’s client is the subject of the investigation for which one is seeking records. 28 C.F.R. § 16.41(d) states, in part, “[w]hen you make a request for access to records about yourself, you must verify your identity.” If one’s client is not the subject of the files sought, the law regards disclosure of law enforcement records as an invasion of privacy.

Footnotes:

[1] Copy of the Delaware FOIA statute is available at this link.

[2] The Court held that the Public Defender’s Office was not a citizen under FOIA and refused to recognize the Assistant Public Defender’s presence in her personal capacity reasoning that she admitted that “she was acting on behalf of the office of the Public Defender.” Public Defender v. State Police, 2003 Del. Super LEXIS 111 at **9, 12 (Del. Super. Mar. 31, 2003).

[3] “ATF is a law enforcement agency in the United States’ Department of Justice that protects our communities.”  ATF, About the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, https://www.atf.gov/.