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Hedrick v. Federal Bureau of Investigation

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 24, 2016

ROBERT L. HEDRICK, Plaintiff,
v.
FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Ketanji Brown Jackson United States District Judge

         Pro se plaintiff Robert L. Hedrick (“Hedrick”) is currently incarcerated in Butner, North Carolina due to a conviction for distribution of child pornography (and other similar federal crimes) in the Southern District of Texas. In August of 2013, Hedrick submitted two FOIA requests to Defendant Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), seeking records relating to any investigation that the FBI had conducted in connection with his prosecution for the child pornography offenses, as well as records related to his contact with the FBI regarding an alleged smuggling conspiracy. (See Compl., ECF No. 1, at 2; see also FOIA Requests, Exs. A & B to Compl., ECF No. 1-1, at 2-6.)[1] In response to these FOIA requests, the FBI released to Hedrick a redacted two-page summary of an interview of him that two FBI agents purportedly conducted; the FBI maintained that the redactions related to personal identifying information that FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C) protect. In the instant five-count complaint, which was initially filed on April 28, 2015, and supplemented on September 14, 2015, Hedrick challenges the adequacy of the FBI's response to his FOIA requests.

         Before this Court at present is the FBI's motion for summary judgment. (Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 14.)[2] The FBI argues that it is entitled to summary judgment with respect to Hedrick's entire complaint because the agency conducted an adequate search for responsive documents and properly invoked FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C) to withhold portions of the two-page responsive document that it located. (See Mem. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mem.”), ECF No. 14-1, at 26-34; Reply in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.'s Reply”), ECF No. 31, at 3-8.) In response, Hedrick expressly concedes any challenge to the redactions that the FBI made to the two-page document pursuant to Exemptions 6 and 7(C). (See Resp. to Mot. for Partial Summ. J. (“Pl.'s Opp'n”), ECF No. 27, at 8-9.) But Hedrick argues that, because the FBI did not search specific field offices in response to his request, it did not conduct an adequate search for records. Hedrick also asserts that the agency is intentionally suppressing additional responsive records related to an alleged smuggling conspiracy that was the subject of his interview with the FBI agents (see Id. at 7-8), and he further insists that the document the FBI released to him is “false” and that an unknown person “planted” the document in the FBI's file (id. at 8). Hedrick asks this Court to order production of the entire file in which the two-page document was found and initiate criminal proceedings against those people who allegedly inserted this “false” document into the file. (See Id. at 13, 17.)

         On September 30, 2016, this Court issued an order GRANTING the FBI's motion for summary judgment. (See Order, ECF No. 42.) The instant Memorandum Opinion explains the Court's reasons for that Order. In short, this Court finds that the FBI conducted an adequate search for records, and that Hedrick's contention that the FBI is hiding or has destroyed additional responsive records (see Pl's Opp'n at 5-6) is entirely speculative, and thus insufficient to overcome the presumption of good faith that attaches to the affidavit the FBI has submitted in support of its motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The FBI's Electronic Databases

         The FBI utilizes a system known as the Central Records System (“CRS”) to house agency records, including “applicant, investigative, intelligence, personnel, administrative, and general files compiled and maintained by the FBI in the course of fulfilling its . . . functions as a law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence agency[.]” (Decl. of David M. Hardy (“Hardy Decl.”), ECF No. 14-3, ¶ 18.) The CRS “encompasses the records of FBI Headquarters (‘FBIHQ'), FBI Field Offices, and FBI Legal Attaché Offices . . . worldwide[, ]” and “consists of a numerical sequence of files, called FBI ‘classifications, ' which are organized according to designated subject categories.” (Id. ¶¶ 18-19.) These “categories include types of criminal conduct and investigations conducted by the FBI[.]” (Id. ¶ 19.)

         The FBI maintains general indices for the records that CRS contains. (See id. ¶ 20.) These indices “are arranged in alphabetical order and comprise an index on a variety of subject matters[, ]” such as individuals, organizations, and subjects of investigative interest. (Id.) Entries fall into two categories: (1) main entries, which “pertain[] . . . to the main subject(s) of a file” and typically bear the name of the individual, organization, or event, and (2) reference entries (or cross-references), which pertain to documents that mention an individual, organization, or event, but are located in a main file that relates to another entity or topic. (Id.) The FBI also maintains a Universal Index (“UNI”), which “is the automated index of the CRS[, ] and provides all offices of the FBI with a centralized, electronic means of indexing pertinent investigative information to FBI files for future retrieval via index searching.” (Id. ¶ 23.) Within UNI, an individual's name may be linked to “identifying information such as date of birth, race, sex, locality, Social Security Number, address, and/or date of an event.” (Id.)

         In 1995, the FBI implemented the Automatic Case Support (“ACS”) system, which converted “over 105 million CRS records . . . into a single, consolidated case management system accessible by all FBI offices.” (Id. ¶ 22.) The ACS “built upon and incorporated prior automatic FBI indices[, ]” such that “a search employing the UNI application of ACS encompasses data that was already indexed into the prior automated systems superseded by ACS.” (Id. ¶ 23.) Thus, “a UNI index search in ACS is capable of locating FBI records created before its . . . implementation [in 1995] to the present day in both paper and electronic format.” (Id.)

         Then, in 2012, the FBI implemented Sentinel, its next generation case management system. (See Id. ¶ 24.) Sentinel “provides a web-based interface . . . and . . . includes the same automated applications that are utilized in ACS.” (Id.) Although Sentinel houses FBI records and case files created after July 1, 2012, “Sentinel did not replace ACS and its relevance as an important FBI search mechanism.” (Id.) New Sentinel records are “indexed for future retrieval[, ]” and “there is an index data sharing nexus between the Sentinel and ACS systems” such that “information indexed into Sentinel [is] also replicated or ‘backfilled' into ACS.” (Id.)

         Given all of these indices and record systems, when the FBI receives a request for records under the FOIA, it “employs an index search methodology” that is “reasonably expected to locate responsive material within the vast CRS [system.]” (Id. ¶ 25.) To conduct a search of the CRS, the FBI uses “the automated UNI application of ACS[.]” (Id.) In addition, if a request seeks records that were generated after July 1, 2012, the FBI will separately perform a Sentinel index search. (See id.)

         B. Facts And Procedural History

         Hedrick is currently incarcerated as a result of being convicted of distribution of child pornography and other related offenses in the Southern District of Texas in 2013. (See Id. ¶ 6.) See also United States v. Hedrick, 583 F.App'x 364, 365 (5th Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (affirming convictions on distributing child pornography), cert. denied, 136 S.Ct. 1396 (2016). According to the FBI's memorandum of law in support of its motion for summary judgment, there is a “complete lack of FBI records related to these convictions, ” which in the agency's view means that “the criminal investigation[s] of these charges were most likely related to a local, state, or federal task force investigation of some type, which did not include or involve the FBI.” (Def.'s Mem. at 2 n.1.)

         In August of 2013, Hedrick submitted two separate FOIA requests to two FBI units: one to the Brownsville Resident Agency of the Texas FBI Field Office, and the other to FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. (See Hardy Decl. ¶¶ 7-8.) The two requests “are separate, but very similar 16 part inquir[i]es” (id. ¶ 3 n.1) that seek information about Hedrick himself, his criminal prosecution in the Southern District of Texas, and his contact with the FBI regarding his knowledge of an alleged smuggling conspiracy. (See FOIA Requests, Exs. A & B to Compl., ECF No. 1-1, at 2-6.)[3]

         “The FBI combined [the] plaintiff's [two FOIA] request letters into a single administrative case[, ]” and assigned the matter Request Number 1228440-000. (Hardy Decl. ¶ 9 n.3.) Then, “the FBI conducted a CRS index search on October 3, 2013, for responsive main file records employing the UNI application of ACS[, ]” using variations of [Hedrick's] name, his date of birth, Social Security Number, and place of birth, but the search yielded “no main files responsive to the subject of plaintiff's request.” (Id. ¶ 26.) When Hedrick was informed of this result, he undertook a series of administrative appeals, and on April 29, 2015, filed a pro se complaint in this Court. Each of the complaint's four counts, which are brought under the FOIA and the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, essentially asserts that “[t]he FBI failed to identify records known to be in its possession.” (Compl. at 3; see also id. at 3-10.)[4] The complaint also requests “an order to compel [the FBI] to provide [Hedrick with] all of the documents and items requested by [him] in his FOIA [R]equest No. 1228440-0.” (Id. at 11.)

         After Hedrick filed his complaint, the FBI conducted a second search “for both main file and cross-references” (Hardy Decl. ¶ 27), which still “did not identify any main file records indexed to the plaintiff” (id.). However, this second search yielded a “responsive cross-reference control file number 804B-SA-C57921-H, Serial 123.” (Id.)[5] That control file contained a two-page Interview Form (hereinafter “Form 302”) that, according to the FBI, had been “compiled as a result of an interview by FBI Special Agents of [Hedrick] at his Brownsville, Texas, Pan American Airways, Inc., office on March 28, 2011.” (Id. ¶ 5, see also Id. ¶ 29.) On August 12, 2015, the FBI released Form 302 to Hedrick after redacting certain personal identifying information pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C). (See Id. ΒΆ 35.) The FBI did not locate any additional documents in this control file that were responsive to Hedrick's FOIA ...


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