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James v. United States Customs and Border Protection

March 3, 2008

SHANELL JAMES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court are Defendant's Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff's Motion for a Writ of Mandamus, and Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint. See Dkt. ## 53, 56, and 65. Shanell James, proceeding pro se, filed this action pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, appealing the disposition of his records request by the United States Customs and Border Protection ("CBP"), a component agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security ("DHS"). On February 23, 2007, this Court denied Defendant's earlier Motion for Summary Judgment without prejudice, concluding that the record was insufficient to find that CBP's search for documents was adequate. See Dkt. # 36. Since then, CBP has undertaken another search for responsive documents, and produced additional documents to Mr. James. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant Defendant's Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment, deny Plaintiff's Motion for a Writ of Mandamus, anddenyPlaintiff's Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint.

I. BACKGROUND

Mr. James was arrested in Miami, Florida in May 2003 for smuggling heroin concealed inside his body. This arrest ultimately led to his conviction in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Mr. James is currently incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York.

On March 24, 2005, the CBP acknowledged the receipt of a FOIA request sent by Mr. James, requesting a "Lab Analysis Report" and "any additional records or documents" related to his criminal case in the Southern District of Florida. On June 23, 2006, CBP conducted a search of the Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS) -- a database that contains information regarding inspections of individuals at the border -- and two responsive documents were found. Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Renewed Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mem."), Ex. 1 (Declaration of Dorothy Pullo ("Pullo Decl.") ¶¶ 6, 7). CBP disclosed these two responsive records to Mr. James in part, redacting certain information pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 2, 6, 7(C), and 7(E). Id. ¶ 7.

CBP thereafter filed its first Motion for Summary Judgment on September 8, 2007, arguing that it had made an adequate search under FOIA and released to Mr. James the appropriate materials. See Dkt. # 19. That Motion was denied on February 23, 2007. See Dkt. # 36 ("At this point, on this record, there is substantial doubt as to the sufficiency of CBP's search."). In that decision, the Court was concerned that CBP had not detailed what it knew with respect to the investigation, arrest, and prosecution that led to Mr. James' conviction in the Southern District of Florida, nor had there been any attempt to explain CBP's search methodology. Id. The Court emphasized that CBP is not required to search all of its records in response to Plaintiff's FOIA request. However, an agency must "tailor the scope of its search based on the information known to it at the time." Id. (citing Campbell v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 164 F.3d 20, 28 (D.C. Cir. 1998)).

In response to the Court's decision, "the two pages of documents [initially produced] were re-examined by CBP and a notation was discovered within these documents, regarding a seizure. As a result, CBP's Miami Field office was contacted to determine whether a Seizure Report or any additional law enforcement records or information existed and could be located with respect to Plaintiff's case." Def.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 7; Pullo Decl. ¶ 8. In all, 55 documents relating to narcotics and personal items recovered and seized from Mr. James at the Miami International Airport were released to Mr. James with certain redactions. Pullo Decl. ¶¶ 8-9, 12. CBP states that it has released all the information it has in its possession that is responsive to Mr. James' FOIA request. Id. ¶ 9.

CBP has once again moved for summary judgment on the ground that it has fulfilled its obligations under FOIA. Mr. James opposes the Motion, arguing that the search was inadequate and that the grounds for withholding documents are inadequate. The Court concludes that CBP has fully complied with Mr. James' FOIA request and therefore will grant Defendant's Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

To prevail on a motion for summary judgment in a FOIA case, the responding agency must demonstrate (1) that it conducted an adequate search of its records for the requested information; and (2) that any responsive information that it withheld falls within one of FOIA's exemptions. See Leadership Conference on Civil Rights v. Gonzales, 404 F. Supp. 2d 246, 252 (D.D.C. 2005); Students Against Genocide v. Dep't of State, 257 F.3d 828, 833 (D.C. Cir. 2001) ("[A]n agency is entitled to summary judgment if . . . each document that falls within the class requested either has been produced . . . or is wholly exempt from [FOIA's] inspection requirements.") (internal quotations omitted). A district court conducts a de novo review of an agency's determination to withhold information under FOIA. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); 5 U.S.C. § 552a(g)(3)(a). It is the agency opposing disclosure of documents under FOIA that bears the burden of establishing that a claimed exemption applies. See, e.g., Assassination Archives & Research Ctr. v. CIA, 334 F.3d 55, 57-58 (D.C. Cir. 2003). "Summary judgment is warranted on the basis of agency affidavits when the affidavits describe the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail, demonstrate that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record nor by evidence of agency bad faith." Miller v. Casey, 730 F.2d 773, 776 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (internal quotations omitted).

III. ANALYSIS

A. CBP's Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment

1. CBP's Search for Responsive Documents

To obtain summary judgment on the issue of the adequacy of its search, CBP must show that, "viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the requester, . . . [it] has conducted a 'search reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.'" Steinberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 552 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (quoting Weisberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984)). In order to satisfy this requirement, an agency may produce "an affidavit reciting facts which enable the District Court to satisfy itself that all appropriate files have been searched." Church of Scientology v. IRS, 792 F.2d 146, 151 (D.C. Cir. 1986). "[I]n the absence of countervailing evidence or apparent inconsistency of proof, affidavits that explain in reasonable detail the scope and method of the search conducted by the agency will suffice to demonstrate compliance with the obligations imposed by the FOIA." Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 127 (D.C. Cir. 1982). CBP must show that it made a "good faith effort to conduct a search for the requested records, using methods which can be reasonably expected to produce the information requested." Oglesby v. Dep't of the Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990). In determining the adequacy of a FOIA search, the Court is guided by principles of reasonableness. Id. It is Plaintiff's burden to present evidence rebutting CBP's initial showing of a good faith search. Weisberg v. Dep't of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344, 1351-52 (D.C. Cir. 1983). The Court's inquiry regarding the adequacy of the search focuses on the search itself, not its results. Weisberg, 745 F.2d at 1485.

Here, Mr. James requested a "Lab Analysis Report" and "any additional records or documents" related to his criminal case in the Southern District of Florida. Compl., Ex. 1. CBP's search uncovered documents that were provided to Mr. James with certain redactions and exemptions. Those documents related to narcotics and personal items recovered and seized from Mr. James at the Miami International Airport. Def.'s Mem. at 5; Pullo Decl. ¶ 9. Mr. James argues that the document search was inadequate because "Plaintiff specifically requested the 'Lab Analysis' report, and to date, the Defendant[] [has] not provided it[,] [e]ven though [] several released documents make reference to it[s] existence." Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at ¶ 21. Mr. James is particularly focused on receiving this lab report that he says was "prepared by Special Agent Chinell Medina" because he believes it may ...


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