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Doe v. Dist. of Columbia Metropolitan Police Dep't

May 29, 2008

JOHN DOE, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA METROPOLITAN POLICE DEPARTMENT, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-4244-03) (Hon. James E. Boasberg, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thompson, Associate Judge

Submitted March 13, 2008

Before FARRELL and THOMPSON, Associate Judges, and BELSON, Senior Judge.

Appellant, whom we refer to as "John Doe" or "Doe,"*fn1 filed an action in the District of Columbia Superior Court under the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA")*fn2 against former Chief Charles Ramsey of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).*fn3 Doe, who is incarcerated, sought documents that he believed would help him in a collateral challenge of his 1999 conviction, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and heroin. After the trial court granted the District's motion for summary judgment, Doe moved for relief from that judgment pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 60 (b). Upon the court's denial of his Rule 60 (b) motion, Doe moved to amend that ruling pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 59 (e). The court denied that motion as well. In this appeal, Doe contends that the trial court erred in denying his Rule 60 (b) and 59 (e) motions. He also asserts that he was not served with the District's motion for summary judgment, that the trial court failed to give him timely notice of its entry of summary judgment, and that there exists a material factual dispute that made summary judgment for the District improper. We reverse and remand.

I.

Doe is serving a sentence of 292 months for his conviction of conspiracy. According to his FOIA request, which is attached as an exhibit to his FOIA complaint, the government alleged that he was part of a conspiracy that existed from 1986 until 1998. His FOIA request was for documents that would show that, in 1989 or 1990, he reported his co-conspirators to MPD Detective Daniel Villare as participants in a murder, thereby (Doe claims) terminating his role in any conspiracy that then existed.*fn4 Specifically, Doe's letter stated that "[t]he information requested is pertained to my 'roll' [sic] as a witness in a homicide that transpired . . . in the District of Columbia. In which, the detective assigned to the investigations was Daniel Villare from the 'Redrum' homicide team."*fn5 Doe's FOIA complaint, which he filed on May 22, 2003, asserts that he and Detective Villare signed a "contract" stating that Doe would "never be a government's witness in any public court,"*fn6 but that the information that Doe supplied to the detective culminated in an arrest of the killer. The complaint also asserts that Doe never received a response, from either MPD or the Mayor, to his repeated requests.*fn7

At the time he filed his FOIA complaint, Doe was incarcerated at the Allenwood federal correctional facility ("FCI") in Pennsylvania. Subsequently, he was transferred to the FCI in Gilmer, West Virginia; then to the FCI in Memphis, Tennessee. The Superior Court docket sheet reflects that on August 23, 2004, the court docketed Doe's praecipe notifying the court of his change of address.*fn8 The "certificate of service" portion of Doe's change-of-address notice contained in the Superior Court jacket states that a copy was sent to counsel for the District.

On August 27, 2004, four days after the court received and docketed Doe's change-of-address praecipe, the District filed a motion for summary judgment. The District's motion stated that "[a] search of all data bases containing information as to confidential sources was searched in an effort to locate any documents relating to [Doe] and to identify any assistance provided by [Doe]," but that "[n]o information pertaining to [Doe] was recovered." The District's brief in support of its summary judgment motion asserted that "[a] search for the requested records was previously performed" and explains that the District's counsel also [C]aused a new search to be made of the department's database in an effort to locate the subject documents. On or about March of, [sic] 2004, a detective from the Metropolitan Police Department searched a computer database, WACIIS (Washington Area Criminal Intelligence Investigative System), to which only District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department authorized personnel have access, for the subject records. The detective used all the information that plaintiff provided to this defendant in order to locate the requested documents, which allegedly contain information pertaining to plaintiff. This database is the only source of research that would contain information from 1989 or 1990 and was thoroughly searched in an attempt to uncover the subject Metropolitan Police Department document records.

The District's motion was accompanied by the declaration of MPD Detective Stanley Farmer, the MPD employee who conducted the search. Detective Farmer stated the following in his declaration:

I am authorized to use the computer database WACIIS, Washington Area Criminal Intelligence Investigative System. I use this database in the normal course of my duties as a Detective and I am familiar with the program. I was contacted in this case to investigate whether [ Doe] had ever acted as an informant to a homicide back in 1989 or 1990. In order to perform this search I obtained all information that [Doe] had provided in reference to said homicide. This information included that the victim was a Cuban man, the murder took place in 1989 or 1990, the murder took place in the District of Columbia in the interior of a basement, names of persons involved (2 full names and 3 first names), and that after learning this information, [Doe] reported to the REDDRUM Homicide Division of the Metropolitan Police Department and spoke with a Detective Daniel Villare. Using the provided information I thoroughly searched the database looking for any connection [Doe] may or may not have had to a homicide investigation. This investigation took place on or about March 1, 2004. After a thorough search using all of [Doe's] provided information, I could not recover any information or evidence that suggested that [Doe] had ever previously acted, in any capacity, as an informant to a homicide.

On September 23, 2004, the trial court granted the District's unopposed motion for summary judgment, stating that, in light of Detective Farmer's declaration that he "searched the relevant database and found nothing," "there is nothing to compel here."

Doe alleges that he would have opposed the District's motion for summary judgment if he had received it, but that -- as shown on the District's certificate of service -- the District mailed the motion to the FCI in West Virginia, where Doe no longer resided. The court's September 23, 2004 summary judgment order shows that it, too, was mailed to Doe's prior address at the FCI in Gilmer, West Virginia, despite the fact that, a month earlier, the clerk's office had docketed Doe's change of address. The court's mailing to Doe was returned, with the envelope marked "Not deliverable as addressed - unable to forward - return to sender - cannot identify by name or number."*fn9

Doe states that on November 8, 2005, unaware of the motion for summary judgment or the court's entry of summary judgment against him, he mailed a letter to the Superior Court to inquire about the status of his case. In reply to Doe's inquiry, the court mailed Doe a copy of the court's summary judgment ruling. Doe asserts that he received this mail on December 12, 2005, and, on that same day, submitted a motion to vacate the judgment as void pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 60 (b)(4). A copy of this motion is not included in the parties' appendices and we have been unable to locate a copy of it in the Superior Court record. The District's brief appears to acknowledge, however, that "[in his Rule 60 (b) motion], [Doe] urgued [sic] that the order granting summary judgment should be ...


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