The Supreme Court, in a broad defense of personal privacy, ruled 9 to 0 Wednesday that the press and the public have no right to see criminal records compiled by the federal government.
The FBI may keep its 24 million so-called “rap sheets” confidential, the justices said, even if the records show that a public figure has been convicted of a series of past crimes.
Although criminal records are usually publicly available from local police departments and courthouses, the FBI treats them as private when they are compiled in its central computers. In general, it allows only other law enforcement officials to check the records, a policy affirmed by Wednesday’s court ruling.
Cites Privacy Issue
The court noted that the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, although it imposed on the government “a general philosophy of full agency disclosure,” allowed the government to withhold information if it is judged to constitute “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The court concluded that disclosures by the FBI fit that category.
“We hold as a categorical matter that a third party’s request for law-enforcement records or information about a private citizen can reasonably be expected to invade that citizen’s privacy,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens. This “invasion of privacy,” he said, “is unwarranted.”
The justices concluded that criminals “have a significant privacy interest” in keeping their criminal histories secret. By contrast, in the previous day’s ruling approving some drug testing by the government, the high court said that government workers have only a “minimal” right to privacy when matched against the government’s need for a drug-free workplace.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which filed the case on behalf of a CBS-TV reporter seeking information on an alleged Pennsylvania crime figure, criticized the court for an “extremely crabbed” reading of the Freedom of Information Act.
“We were not seeking medical files or intimate personal information,” said Jane Kirtley, the committee’s executive director. “I don’t see how a criminal history can be considered clearly private information,”
In 1978, CBS reporter Robert Schakne asked the FBI for its “public records” on the four Medico brothers, three of them since deceased, who had been identified by the Pennsylvania Crime Commission as having ties to organized crime. Schakne was investigating then-Rep. Daniel J. Flood (D-Pa.), who had helped the Medicos win several Defense Department contracts. Flood later pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy.
The Justice Department refused Schakne’s request. When a federal appeals court here said that the FBI should disclose crime records if the information is public “at the original source,” the government appealed to the Supreme Court (Department of Justice vs. Reporters Committee, 87-1379).
Justice Stevens said he saw no public interest in disclosing these crime records.
Justice Explains Ruling
Medico “allegedly had improper dealings with a corrupt congressman,” he said. “But if Medico has, in fact, been arrested or convicted of certain crimes, that information . . . would tell us nothing about the character of the congressman’s behavior. Nor would it tell us anything about the conduct of the Department of Defense in awarding one or more contracts to the Medico company.”
“Conceivably,” Stevens said, “Medico’s rap sheet would provide details to include in a news story, but, in itself, this is not the kind of public interest for which Congress enacted the FOIA.”
Schakne, who retired from CBS last year, said after the ruling that Congress should overturn it by amending the Freedom of Information Act. “I think the public has a legitimate interest in knowing if someone has been convicted of a crime,” he said in a telephone interview.
The American Civil Liberties Union hailed the ruling as a victory for personal privacy.
The California Department of Justice follows a disclosure policy similar to the FBI’s. State law forbids officials from disclosing criminal records compiled in Sacramento. In a brief filed in the case decided Wednesday, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp threatened to quit sending criminal records to the FBI if the FBI then could disclose them to the public.