High Court Rules FBI Records Not Confidential per Se

Article excerpt

UNDER THE FREEDOM of Information Act, all FBI sources are not confidential simply because they were part of an investigation, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The court, ruling in United States Department of Justice et al v. Landano, found that "the government is not entitled to a presumption that a source is confidential within the meaning of Exemption 7(D) [of FoIA] whenever the source provides information to the FBI in the course of a criminal investigation.

"More narrowly defined circumstances, however, can provide a basis for inferring confidentiality' wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor for the unanimous court.

The case began in the late 1980s, when Vincent James Landano filed FoIA requests with the Federal Bureau of Investigation seeking information about the 1976 murder of New Jersey police officer John Snow. Landano was convicted in 1977 on charges including felony murder surrounding the robbery during which Snow was killed.

Landano has maintained his innocence and has filed court action charging the prosecutor of withholding evidence that could prove his innocence.

During his quest for information, Landano filed the FoIA requests with the FBI, but the pages came back with significant portions, including names, edited.

Landano sought to have the information released, but the government claimed an exemption under FoIA pertaining to confidential sources of information for law enforcement purposes.

The District Court ruled that the FBI had to show "case-specific reasons for non-disclosure."

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed that and went even further, ruling that the source was confidential under the FoIA exemption only if given explicit assurances or if there were circumstances "from which such an assurance could reasonably be inferred. …