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Watson v. DOJ, No. 18-1645, 2020 WL 5505346 (D.D.C. Sept. 10, 2020) (Friedrich, J.)


Watson v. DOJ, No. 18-1645, 2020 WL 5505346 (D.D.C. Sept. 10, 2020) (Friedrich, J.)

Re:  Request for records concerning plaintiff's criminal prosecution

Disposition:  Granting defendants' motion for summary judgment; denying plaintiff's motion for summary judgment

  • Litigation Considerations, Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies:  The court finds that "[i]t is undisputed that [plaintiff] did not file an administrative appeal after the EOUSA denied his request."  "[Plaintiff] did exhaust administrative remedies against the FBI, however, . . . so the Court proceeds to the merits of those claims."
  • Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search:  The court holds that "the FBI has met its burden of producing a 'reasonably detailed affidavit' describing its search process."  The court relates that "[defendant's] declaration describes the FBI's Central Record System and accompanying systems in thorough detail."  "It explains that the CRS is the primary records system and is likely to contain documents responsive to [plaintiff's] request."  "It also provides the specific search terms the FBI used."  "And it further explains that the FBI located [plaintiff's] criminal file and processed those documents in accordance with his request."
  • Exemptions 6 & 7(C):  The court holds that "summary judgment is proper as to Exemptions 6 and 7(C)."  The court relates that "the FBI withheld identifying information that included names, phone numbers, addresses, social security numbers and other personal information of people who assisted in an FBI investigation."  "These included FBI special agents and staff, informants, people tangentially mentioned, people of investigative interest, local law enforcement employees, and victims."  The court finds that "[n]o doubt, significant privacy interests would be implicated in the disclosure of this personal identifying information – to say nothing of the sensitive context in which the information was obtained."  Regarding the public interest, the court relates that "[plaintiff] claims that 'disclosure of the requested [records] could confirm the DOJ's affirmative misconduct in this case or will show how the responsible officials acted negligently or otherwise improperly in the performance of their duties by initiating the criminal proceedings against the Plaintiff without probable cause, pursued baseless and unfounded criminal charges against the Plaintiff without legal justifications, [and] suborned the perjury of both the leading FBI criminal investigator(s) and the leading state criminal investigators for the DOJ in the prosecution of the Plaintiff.'"  "But with no 'evidence' – let alone 'compelling evidence' – beyond these conclusory allegations of illegal activity, . . . [the court holds that plaintiff] cannot establish a public interest to overcome the substantial privacy interests at stake."
  • Exemption 7(D):  The court relates that "[h]ere, the FBI exempted certain information that could reveal the identity of confidential informants who assisted in an investigation."  "In particular, the FBI withheld 'the confidential source file numbers of permanent Confidential Human Sources.'"  The court finds that "[e]ach confidential source file number is unique to one confidential source and used repeatedly to reference him or her."  "And it is provided 'under express assurances of confidentiality.'"  "Given these facts, the disclosure of the expressly confidential source file numbers 'would narrow the possibilities of the informants' true identities,' . . . and that could 'reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source' . . . ."
  • Exemption 7(E):  The court relates that "[t]he FBI invoked this exemption to withhold information about 'undercover operations' and 'source file numbers,' a numbering system for categorizing and assigning priority to various FBI operations."  "The FBI explained in great detail how public disclosure of this information would 'risk circumvention of the law' by revealing non-public investigative details (including the FBI's failures or omissions) to criminals who could then adapt their behavior to avoid detection."  The court holds that "[r]eliance on the exemption was proper."
  • Exemption 7(F):  The court relates that "[t]he FBI invoked this exemption to protect the names and other identifying information of individuals who might face violent retaliation for their cooperation in the investigation."  "The FBI explained that these individuals assisted in the investigation of a major drug cartel operation, and those who assist in such investigations often face violent retribution against themselves and their families."  The court holds that "release of their identities would 'endanger the life or physical safety of an[ ] individual.'"
  • Litigation Considerations, "Reasonably Segregable" Requirements:  The court relates that "[t]he FBI submitted an Exemption Application Index which catalogs which documents or passages were withheld, the extent to which they were withheld (in full or in part), the exemptions covering the information, as well as a description of why the information was withheld."  "Further, [defendant's] Declaration attests that '[t]he FBI did not withhold any reasonably segregable, nonexempt portions from Plaintiff.'"  "Together, these submissions satisfy the FBI's segregability obligations."
Court Decision Topic(s)
District Court opinions
Exemption 6
Exemption 7(C)
Exemption 7(D)
Exemption 7(E)
Exemption 7(F)
Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search
Litigation Considerations, Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies
Litigation Considerations, “Reasonably Segregable” Requirements
Updated October 20, 2020