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Williams v. DOJ, No. 19-0104, 2023 WL 2424738 (D.D.C. Mar. 9, 2023) (Walton, J.)


Williams v. DOJ, No. 19-0104, 2023 WL 2424738 (D.D.C. Mar. 9, 2023) (Walton, J.)

Re:  Request for records concerning plaintiff

Disposition:  Granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment

  • Exemption 7(E):  “[T]he Court concludes that the DEA’s reliance on Exemption 7(E) is permitted.”  The court relates that “[t]he DEA represents that ‘[t]he lion’s share of DEA’s withholdings under Exemption 7(E) are invoked to protect DEA case file numbers[,]’ . . . or more specifically, the DEA’s ‘case numbering convention [which] identifies the investigative interest or priority given to’ a matter . . . .”  “The declarant . . . explains that file numbers identify the specific DEA office initiating an investigation, the year the investigation began, and the total number of investigations the office initiated in any given fiscal year.”  “According to the declarant, release of DEA file numbers ‘could reasonably be expected to create a risk of circumvention of law’ by, for example, ‘revealing how . . . law enforcement databases work . . . rendering them more vulnerable to manipulation[.]’”  “In addition, the declarant represents that disclosure of ‘details about how the DEA currently conducts investigation[s]’ provides ‘bad actors key information about DEA procedures and techniques and potentially the ability to track how [the] DEA investigates subjects.’” 

    Next, the court relates that “[t]he DEA applied Exemption 7(E) to two groups of information designated ‘Other Law Enforcement Codes.’”  “With respect to ‘qualitative drug classification criteria and internal principal-controlled substance/commodity codes,’ . . . the declarant explains that their disclosure offers the public ‘specific numbers and codes’ which in turn ‘could lead to . . . circumvention of the law by . . . reveal[ing] how [the] DEA investigates dangerous drug violators, how the level of [the violators’] involvement is classified, and what investigative priority is given to them, including some of the most highly sought-after criminals.’”  Additionally, the court relates that “[t]he designation Other Law Enforcement Codes also includes ‘[i]nternal principal-controlled substance/commodity codes,’ which the DEA uses ‘to internally label and identify the types of drug(s) involved in a particular investigation.’”  “According to the declarant, disclosure of these codes would reveal ‘both a law enforcement technique and procedure[.]’”  “These codes are incorporated into G-DEP numbers, . . . which the Court already deemed protected under Exemption 7(E) . . . .” 

    Regarding withheld “sub-office codes,” the court also relates that “[t]he declarant explains that sub-office codes are used as ‘enforcement group identifier[s] in multiple systems throughout’ the U.S. Department of Justice (‘DOJ’), such as the DOJ’s Consolidated Asset Tracking System to identify ‘the enforcement group within a specific DEA Field office or Resident office’ associated with a particular matter.”  “If these codes were released, the declarant states, a ‘suspect[ ] could pinpoint where a certain enforcement group is located,’ and in turn, ‘determine where [the] DEA conducts operations and investigations’ or ‘where [the] DEA focuses its investigative resources geographically[.]’”  “With such information, the declarant states, wrongdoers could relocate their criminal activities to areas where the DEA is less likely to detect them.”

    Also, regarding National Crime Information Center (NCIC) codes, the court explains that “[t]he declarant describes the NCIC as a computerized repository of information from local, state, federal, and foreign law enforcement sources providing ‘criminal law enforcement agencies . . . ready access to important information about crimes and criminals in real time.’”  “The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Criminal Justice Information Service Division issues nine-character NCIC codes to qualifying law enforcement agencies, thus granting these agencies ‘access to the database’ and providing a means by which to track each agency’s transactions within the NCIC.”  “According to the declarant, disclosure of NCIC codes ‘could allow unauthorized access to highly sensitive law enforcement systems and information . . . and thereby pose a meaningful risk of circumvention of the law.’”

    Regarding information withheld from several documents, “[a]ccording to the declarant, release of the memorandum and the DEA-12 would reveal ‘investigative techniques that are not known to the public’ regarding the use of consensual eavesdropping or closed circuit television equipment.”  “Moreover, release of the DEA-284 would reveal ‘how drugs are received into custody, where and how drugs are stored when not in use, location of drug-processing facilities, the exact undercover operation in which the drugs were used, and how . . . the DEA wraps, stores, and maintains particular drugs.’”  “The DEA therefore withheld these records to protect its procedures and techniques for conducting surveillance so as not to ‘allow targets and other criminals to restructure their activities to avoid or minimize the efficacy of these procedures, techniques, and practices – and even take affirmative steps to counter undercover operations and investigations.’”

    Regarding “recordings, including ‘recordings of undercover operations[,]’ which ‘document the surveillance of [t]he plaintiff during the drug trafficking investigation that led to his arrest and conviction,’” the court relates that “[t]he declarant explains that release of these recordings would result in the revelation of ‘techniques and procedures used by [the] DEA to investigate drug trafficking suspects and activity[,]’ which then ‘could significantly impede [the] DEA’s investigative efforts by helping targets and violators circumvent the law by revealing sensitive information about how it conducts undercover operations, including its technological capabilities.’”
  • Exemption 7(F):  The court relates that, in a prior opinion, “the Court has already approved the DEA’s reliance on Exemption 7(F), in conjunction with Exemption 7(C), to protect the names of DEA Special Agents, other law enforcement personnel, and third parties involved in the relevant criminal investigations appearing in various DEA forms, the plaintiff’s indictment, warrants issued and photographs.”  “The DEA also relied on Exemption 7(F) to protect a category of information designated ‘Identifying Information of Internal Indexing/Numbering Systems: Group No. (Group Numbers).’”  “The declarant explained that the ‘DEA’s Organization and Staffing Management System . . . uses and stores organizational group numbers in the National Finance Center (NFC)’ for the purpose of allocating resources.”  “Further, she stated that certain law ‘enforcement components within [the] DEA have a numeric identifier,’ as do ‘[i]ndividual employees associated with a particular group in [the] NFC and in [the] DEA’s internal personnel management system.’”  “According to the declarant, if group numbers were released, that would amount to the disclosure of a ‘mosaic’ or puzzle from which outsiders could determine which DEA personnel were associated with particular operational groups, and from that ‘potentially identify the agent(s) [who] wrote the investigative reports and/or identify the law enforcement personnel involved in particular law enforcement operations.’”  “And, given that ‘violators are often armed and “have known violent tendencies[,]”’ the DEA withheld the group numbers ‘to shield group members who could be identified and, therefore, become vulnerable to the risks of “physical attacks, threats, harassment, murder, and attempted murder.”’”  The court finds that “the plaintiff's responses fail to address the merits of the defendant’s arguments and, based on its review of the parties’ submissions, the Court concludes that the DEA properly withholds group numbers under Exemption 7(F).”
  • Litigation Considerations, “Reasonably Segregable” Requirements:  “Having reviewed the DEA's supporting declarations, . . . the Court concludes that a line-by-line review of each responsive record was conducted, and therefore, the DEA has demonstrated that it has released all reasonably segregable information.”
Court Decision Topic(s)
District Court opinions
Exemption 7(E)
Exemption 7(F)
Litigation Considerations, “Reasonably Segregable” Requirements
Updated March 29, 2023