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HELLER v. U.S. MARSHALS SERV.

March 9, 1987

Julie Heller, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
U.S. Marshals Service, et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GREENE

 HAROLD H. GREENE, United States District Judge.

 Plaintiffs bring this action to gain access to various law enforcement records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552 (1986). These records deal with an investigation that followed the discovery of a small amount of cocaine in or near the jury room during trial in United States v. Meinster, No. 79-165-CR-JLK (S.D. Fla. 1979). Plaintiffs are friends of one of the defendants in Meinster, a Robert Platshorn, who was found guilty and is now incarcerated. Pending before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the Court concludes that the records sought by plaintiffs fall within various exceptions to FOIA. Accordingly, access to these records will be denied, and this case will be dismissed.

 I

 Plaintiffs' requests for documents arise out of a widely publicized trial in Florida in 1980. The jury had been sequestered in a local hotel, and U.S. Marshals found a vial of cocaine in one of the rooms. Apparently, the cocaine was found in the Marshals' "command post," to which jurors had no access. Although the facts are far from clear, it does appear that the Marshals tested the cocaine and destroyed it. However, the Marshals did not bring the matter to the attention of the presiding judge because he had apparently cautioned them not to trouble him with irrelevancies. Instead, one of the Marshals told defense counsel about the discovery, and defense counsel moved for a mistrial. The judge denied this motion and declined to appoint a special prosecutor, saying that the affidavits submitted "at best fall far short of the necessary showing that something occurred which affected the fair deliberation of the jury." United States v. Meinster, slip op. at 2 (Order of September 12, 1980).

 Plaintiffs requested the documents in question from the Marshals Service on September 2, 1983, and from the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) on that date and also on August 14, 1984. These requests were for "a copy of all records, reports, affidavits, and memoranda produced or prepared for or as a result" of the OPR investigation of the cocaine discovery. The Marshals Service released ten documents and withheld others, pursuant to FOIA exemptions 5, 6, and 7(C). OPR released a redacted copy of its final report and withheld other documents, pursuant to FOIA exemptions 2, 5, 6, and 7. Plaintiffs now dispute the withholding of the redacted portions of the OPR report, as well as twenty-three other documents. The parties have identified these documents as "Bobzien affidavit" documents number 1 and 3-15, and "Graham affidavit" documents number B5-9 and C10-14. All of these documents have been reviewed by the Court in camera, pursuant to the Court's Order of October 3, 1986. For the sake of simplicity, the Court will use these same labels.

 II

 Exemption 7 is perhaps the most frequently litigated of the FOIA exemptions. This exemption in part allows an agency to withhold "investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such records would . . . (C) constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy . . . ." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7). A leading case on this exemption is Stern v. FBI, 237 U.S. App. D.C. 302, 737 F.2d 84 (D.C. Cir. 1984). Under Stern, a court in applying exemption 7(C) must first determine whether the documents in question are "investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes," and if they are, the withholding agency bears the burden of showing why disclosure would cause an unwarranted invasion of privacy. 737 F.2d at 88.

 This analysis calls for nondisclosure of many of the documents sought in the instant case. These are, conservatively, documents 1, 3, 8, 9, and 10 from the Bobzien affidavit and all of the documents from the Graham affidavit. As a threshold matter, all of these documents clearly are "investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes," since they represent part of an inquiry into specific wrongdoing by specific Marshals and jurors. The only question is whether the privacy interests at stake outweigh the public interest in disclosure.

 The Stern court considered this balance in regard to employee records. According to Stern, not only do employees have a privacy interest in their employment histories, but they have a strong interest in not being associated unwarrantedly with alleged criminal activity. The court further stated that the exemption "affords broad privacy rights to suspects, witnesses, and investigators," and that when individuals are investigated but not prosecuted, disclosure should be allowed only if the public interest in the information outweighs "the significant privacy interests implicated." 737 F.2d at 92.

 In this case, document 3 from the Bobzien affidavit affords a good example of why the Stern balance mandates nondisclosure. This document is the report of a polygraph examination of one of the Marshals who cooperated in the OPR investigation. Two major public interests might justify disclosing such a document. The first, not relied upon by plaintiffs, is to root out wrongdoing by federal employees; "there is a public interest in how well public officials are performing their official duties." J. O'Reilly, Federal Information Disclosure 17-41 (1986). The second public interest, urged by plaintiffs, to ensure that the Meinster trial was fair.

 On the other hand, the privacy interests in withholding, for example, document 3 in the Bobzien affidavit, are extremely strong. The official whose polygraph examination was taken had cooperated in the investigation and was cleared of any significant wrongdoing. If such a document is disclosed, this official, in return for his cooperation, may undergo considerable embarrassment and perhaps damage to his career. Courts have long recognized that simply mentioning a person's name in a law enforcement file can stigmatize that person, even if he is not the subject of the investigation. See Miller v. Bell, 661 F.2d 623, 631-32 (7th Cir. 1981). The Court of Appeals for this Circuit has also noted that documents which carry "the imprimatur of an official investigation . . . threaten[] much greater damage to an individual's reputation than newspaper articles or editorial columns." Bast v. Department of Justice, 214 U.S. App. D.C. 433, 665 F.2d 1251 (D.C. Cir. 1981). Moreover, the identities of ...


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