The Supreme Court ruled today that FBI “rap sheets” containing arrest and conviction records on more than 24 million people cannot be released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.
The justices, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, reversed a lower court ruling that held that the data generally is subject to FOIA disclosure rules.
Stevens wrote that the disclosure of such information would violate a section of the act that deals with an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
“The privacy interest in maintaining the practical obscurity of rap-sheet information will always be high,” Stevens wrote. “When the subject of such a rap sheet is a private citizen and when the information is in the government’s control as a compilation . . . the privacy interest protected (by the law) is in fact at its apex while the FOIA-based public interest in disclosure is at its nadir.”
Requests Filed in 1978
The rap-sheet case involves two FOIA requests filed in 1978 by a CBS News correspondent and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The requests sought identification records or “rap sheets” on William, Phillip, Charles and Samuel Medico, who were being investigated for illegal dealings in connection with federal contracts arranged by two Pennsylvania congressmen.
Although the requests were limited to information that is already part of the public record in local law enforcement agencies, the government refused to turn over the records for Charles Medico--the only living subject--on grounds that releasing the information would violate his privacy.
The reporters’ group and CBS then went to court to compel the government to release the records. A federal district court refused, ruling that the records contained private information and were exempt from the FOIA.
On appeal, however, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that any privacy interest in rap sheets is “insignificant” since the information is already available to the public at the local level. The ruling left open the possibility that privacy rights could in some instances outweigh the public interest in releasing the documents.