489 U.S. 749 (1989), 87-1379, Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee

Docket Nº:No. 87-1379
Citation:489 U.S. 749, 109 S.Ct. 1468, 103 L.Ed.2d 774, 57 U.S.L.W. 4373
Party Name:Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee
Case Date:March 22, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 749

489 U.S. 749 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 1468, 103 L.Ed.2d 774, 57 U.S.L.W. 4373

Department of Justice


Reporters Committee

No. 87-1379

United States Supreme Court

March 22, 1989

for Freedom of the Press

Argued December 7, 1988




On the basis of information provided by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) compiles and maintains criminal identification records or "rap-sheets" on millions of persons, which contain descriptive information as well as a history of arrests, charges, convictions, and incarcerations. After the FBI denied Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by respondents, a CBS news correspondent and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, they filed suit in the District Court seeking the rap-sheet for one Charles Medico insofar as it contained "matters of public record." Since the Pennsylvania Crime Commission had identified Medico's family company as a legitimate business dominated by organized crime figures, and since the company allegedly had obtained a number of defense contracts as a result of an improper arrangement with a corrupt Congressman, respondents asserted that a record of financial crimes by Medico would potentially be a matter of public interest. Petitioner Department of Justice responded that it had no record of such crimes, but refused to confirm or deny whether it had any information concerning nonfinancial crimes by Medico. The court granted summary judgment for the Department, holding, inter alia, that the rap-sheet was protected by Exemption 7(C) of the FOIA, which excludes from that statute's disclosure requirements records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes

to the extent that the production of such [materials] . . . could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of

personal privacy.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding, among other things, that district courts should limit themselves in this type of case to making the factual determination whether the subject's legitimate privacy interest in his rap-sheet is outweighed by the public interest in disclosure because the original information appears on the public record.

Held: Disclosure of the contents of an FBI rap-sheet to a third party "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of

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personal privacy" within the meaning of Exemption 7(C), and therefore is prohibited by that Exemption. Pp. 762-780.

(a) Medico's interest in the nondisclosure of any rap-sheet the FBI might have on him is the sort of "personal privacy" interest that Congress intended the Exemption to protect. Pp. 762-771.

(b) Whether disclosure of a private document is "warranted" within the meaning of the Exemption turns upon the nature of the requested document and its relationship to the FOIA's central purpose of exposing to public scrutiny official information that sheds light on an agency's performance of its statutory duties, rather than upon the particular purpose for which the document is requested or the identity of the requesting party. The statutory purpose is not fostered by disclosure of information about private citizens that is accumulated in various governmental files, but that reveals little or nothing about an agency's own conduct. Pp. 771-775.

(c) In balancing the public interest in disclosure against the interest Congress intended Exemption 7(C) to protect, a categorical decision is appropriate, and individual circumstances may be disregarded when a case fits into the genus in which the balance characteristically tips in one direction. Cf. FTC v. Grolier Inc., 462 U.S. 19, 27-28; NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 224. Id. at 223-224, disapproved to the extent that it reads the Exemption's "an unwarranted invasion" phrase to require ad hoc balancing. Where, as here, the subject of a rap-sheet is a private citizen and the information is in the Government's control as a compilation, rather than as a record of what the Government is up to, the privacy interest in maintaining the rap-sheet's "practical obscurity" is always at its apex, while the FOIA-based public interest in disclosure is at its nadir. Thus, as a categorical matter, rap-sheets are excluded from disclosure by the Exemption in such circumstances. Pp. 776-780.

259 U.S.App.D.C. 426, 816 F.2d 730, and 265 U.S.App.D.C. 365, 831 F.2d 1124, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, MARSHALL, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 780.

Page 751

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has accumulated and maintains criminal identification records, sometimes referred to as "rap-sheets," on over 24 million persons. The question presented by this case is whether the disclosure of the contents of such a file to a third party "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" within the meaning of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(C) (1982 ed., Supp. V).


In 1924, Congress appropriated funds to enable the Department of Justice (Department) to establish a program to collect and preserve fingerprints and other criminal identification records. 43 Stat. 217. That statute authorized the Department to exchange such information with "officials of States, cities and other institutions." Ibid. Six years later, Congress created the [109 S.Ct. 1471] FBI's identification division, and gave it responsibility for

acquiring, collecting, classifying, and preserving criminal identification and other crime records and the exchanging of said criminal identification records with the duly authorized officials of governmental agencies

Page 752

of States, cities, and penal institutions.

Ch. 455, 46 Stat. 554 (codified at 5 U.S.C. § 340 (1934)); see 28 U.S.C. § 534(a)(4) (providing for exchange of rap-sheet information among "authorized officials of the Federal Government, the States, cities, and penal and other institutions"). Rap sheets compiled pursuant to such authority contain certain descriptive information, such as date of birth and physical characteristics, as well as a history of arrests, charges, convictions, and incarcerations of the subject. Normally a rap-sheet is preserved until its subject attains age 80. Because of the volume of rap-sheets, they are sometimes incorrect or incomplete, and sometimes contain information about other persons with similar names.

The local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the Nation that exchange rap-sheet data with the FBI do so on a voluntary basis. The principal use of the information is to assist in the detection and prosecution of offenders; it is also used by courts and corrections officials in connection with sentencing and parole decisions. As a matter of executive policy, the Department has generally treated rap-sheets as confidential and, with certain exceptions, has restricted their use to governmental purposes. Consistent with the Department's basic policy of treating these records as confidential, Congress, in 1957, amended the basic statute to provide that the FBI's exchange of rap-sheet information with any other agency is subject to cancellation "if dissemination is made outside the receiving departments or related agencies." 71 Stat. 61; see 28 U.S.C. § 534(b).

As a matter of Department policy, the FBI has made two exceptions to its general practice of prohibiting unofficial access to rap-sheets. First, it allows the subject of a rap-sheet to obtain a copy, see 28 CFR §§ 16.30-16.34 (1988), and second, it occasionally allows rap-sheets to be used in the preparation of press releases and publicity designed to assist in the apprehension of wanted persons or fugitives. See § 20.33(a)(4).

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In addition, on three separate occasions, Congress has expressly authorized the release of rap-sheets for other limited purposes. In 1972, it provided for such release to officials of federally chartered or insured banking institutions and

if authorized by State statute and approved by the Attorney General, to officials of State and local governments for purposes of employment and licensing. . . .

86 Stat. 1115. In 1975, in an amendment to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, Congress permitted the Attorney General to release rap-sheets to self-regulatory organizations in the securities industry. See 15 U.S.C. § 78q(f)(2) (1982 ed., Supp V). And finally, in 1986, Congress authorized release of criminal history information to licensees or applicants before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. See 42 U.S.C. § 2169(a). These three targeted enactments -- all adopted after the FOIA was passed in 1966 -- are consistent with the view that Congress understood and did not disapprove the FBI's general policy of treating rap-sheets as nonpublic documents.

Although much rap-sheet information is a matter of public record, the availability and dissemination of the actual rap-sheet to the public is limited. Arrests, indictments, convictions, and sentences are public events that are usually documented in court records. In addition, if a person's entire criminal history transpired in a single jurisdiction, all of the contents of his or her rap-sheet may be available upon request in that jurisdiction. That possibility, however, is present in only three States.1 All of the other 47 States [109 S.Ct. 1472] place substantial restrictions on the availability of criminal history summaries, even though individual events in those summaries are matters of public record. Moreover, even in Florida, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma, the...

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