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Center for Investigative Reporting v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

United States District Court, District of Columbia

December 3, 2019

CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS ENFORCEMENT, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CARL J. NICHOLS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) submitted two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to Defendant Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seeking arrest records of ICE detainees. See CIR E-Mail of Apr. 17, 2017 (“CIR Request 1”) (citing 5 U.S.C. § 552), ECF No. 18-3; CIR E-Mail of Apr. 19, 2017 (“CIR Request 2”), ECF No. 18-4. Having narrowed the issues, both Parties now seek summary judgment on a single question: whether the categorical withholding of detainees' names from ICE arrest records is justified under FOIA's privacy exemptions. See generally Defs.' Mot. for Summary Judgment (“Defs.' Mot.”), ECF No. 18; Pl.'s Mot. for Summary Judgment (“Pl.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 19. The Court concludes that ICE has properly withheld that information.

         I. Background

         CIR is a “nonprofit investigative journalism organization.” Compl. ¶ 2. On April 17, 2017, it submitted a FOIA request seeking:

All entries in the “DHS/Immigration and Enforcement (ICE)-011 Criminal Arrest Records and Immigration Enforcement Records (CARIER) System of Records” for each arrest record maintained by the CARIER system for fiscal year 2015 to present, with a breakdown by field office, fiscal year and arrest date.

         CIR Request 1 at 1. It also requested that the records contain several types of information, including nationality, immigration history, education history, and criminal history. Id. Two days later, CIR submitted a second FOIA request seeking:

All entries in the “DHS/Immigration and Enforcement (ICE)-011 Criminal Arrest Records and Immigration Enforcement Records (CARIER) System of Records” for each arrest record maintained by the CARIER system for January 1, 2017 to the present, with a breakdown by field office, fiscal year and arrest date, and including [the a]mount of bond posted [and d]ata about persons who post or arrange an immigration bond for the release of an individual from ICE custody including . . . [f]ull [n]ame; [a]ddress; [p]hone numbers; [and o]ther information.

CIR Request 2 at 1.

         Over a month later, ICE responded to acknowledge the requests, consolidate them, and assign a FOIA control number. See ICE E-Mail of Jun. 1, 2017, ECF No. 18-5. Nearly five months later, ICE reported that it had “conducted a search . . . for records responsive to [the] request and no records responsive to [the] request were found.” ICE Ltr. of Oct. 27, 2017 at 1, ECF No. 18-6. CIR appealed administratively, alleging that ICE had failed to conduct an adequate search of its records and did not provide CIR an opportunity to clarify its request before denying it. See CIR Ltr. of Nov. 2, 2017, ECF No. 18-7 at 1-6. ICE's legal counsel reviewed the appeal, agreed to work with CIR to refine the search terms, and remanded to the FOIA office to conduct a new search for documents. See ICE Ltr. of Dec. 5, 2017, ECF No. 18-8.

         Nothing happened for months, so CIR filed this suit in August 2018. See generally Compl. The Complaint spurred action on ICE's part; it produced several Excel spreadsheets containing responsive information. Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 4, ECF No. 18-1. But one spreadsheet withheld certain categories of information under FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C). 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6), (b)(7)(C). That information included “the names and bond numbers of detained aliens, and the names, social security numbers or tax identification numbers, postal addresses, and phone numbers of those that secured bonds for those detained aliens.” Decl. of Toni Fuentes ¶ 25, ECF No. 18-2.

         Because the Parties could not reach an accord on the propriety of those redactions, they filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. But during briefing, the Parties agreed to a limited production of the bond information-ICE produced the names of businesses and non-profit organizations that provided bonds, while CIR agreed not to seek release of either the identities of private individuals who provided bonds or the more detailed private information of the businesses and non-profits, such as tax identification numbers or phone numbers. See Defs.' Opp. to Pl.'s Mot. for Summary Judgment at 2 (“Defs.' Opp.”), ECF No. 22. In the wake of that agreement, only one dispute remains: whether ICE properly withheld the detainees' names.

         II. Mooted Arguments

         Before turning to that question, the Court first addresses the proper resolution of the claims the Parties initially raised in their Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment but resolved through negotiation. Although the Parties agree that those claims are now moot, they do not agree about what to do with them. Defendants contend that they are entitled to summary judgment on those issues. See Defs.' Opp. at 2. CIR argues that the proper remedy is dismissal without prejudice. See Pl.'s Rep. in Support of its Mot. for Summary Judgment (“Pl.'s Rep.”) at 2, ECF No. 24.

         CIR is correct. “[A] case is moot when the issues presented are no longer ‘live' or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome.” Cty. of Los Angeles v. Davis, 440 U.S. 625, 631 (1979) (internal quotation omitted). “FOIA lawsuits generally become moot once an agency has made available requested non-exempt records, whether voluntarily or after court order.” Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of Homeland Sec., 895 F.3d 770, 777 (D.C. Cir. 2018). “The rule against deciding moot cases forbids federal courts from rendering advisory opinions or deciding questions that cannot affect the rights of litigants in the case before them.” Hall v. CIA, 437 F.3d 94, 99 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (internal quotation omitted). When plaintiffs have “obtained everything that [they] could recover by a judgment of this court in [their] favor, ” there is nothing left to do but dismiss the case. Id. (internal ...


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