DOJ v. Reporters Comm. for Free Press
Annotate this Case
489 U.S. 749 (1989)
U.S. Supreme Court
DOJ v. Reporters Comm. for Free Press, 489 U.S. 749 (1989)
Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee
for Freedom of the Press
Argued December 7, 1988
Decided March 22, 1989
489 U.S. 749
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"
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
personal privacy" within the meaning of Exemption 7(C), and therefore is prohibited by that Exemption. Pp. 489 U. S. 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. 489 U. S. 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. 489 U. S. 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, 462 U. S. 27-28; NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U. S. 214, 437 U. S. 224. Id. at 437 U. S. 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. 489 U. S. 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. 489 U. S. 780.