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Williams v. Federal Bureau of Investigation

decided: March 20, 1984.

JOHN R. WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, WILLIAM H. WEBSTER, DIRECTOR, FBI, NEW HAVEN FIELD OFFICE OF THE FBI, L. GREY BROCKMAN, SPECIAL AGENT IN CHARGE OF NEW HAVEN FIELD OFFICE, FBI, UNITED STATES DEPT. OF JUSTICE, GRIFFIN B. BELL, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



Appeal from a judgment entered in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (T. F. Gilroy Daly, Chief Judge), directing the Federal Bureau of Investigation to release documents pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Winter and Pratt, Circuit Judges, and Metzner, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Winter

WINTER, Circuit Judge:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") appeals from a decision by Magistrate Latimer directing the release of certain information pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (1976) ("FOIA"). Chief Judge Daly adopted and approved his ruling. We reverse and remand.

BACKGROUND

In the late 1960's and early 1970's, the FBI had a continuing investigation of the Black Panther Party ("Panthers"), an organization which advocated violent revolution. In May, 1969 Alex Rackley, a government informer and Panther member, was found murdered. Fourteen members of the Panthers, including its national chairman, Bobby Seale, were arrested, charged and tried for the murder in New Haven, Connecticut.

In October, 1969 a group calling itself the Coalition for the Defense of the Panthers ("Coalition") was formed in New Haven. This group announced that its major goals were to:

The membership of the Coalition consisted of groups ranging from the Students for a Democratic Society to various community organizations affiliated with Yale University. The FBI began an investigation of the Coalition in October, 1969. It closed its file on May 20, 1971, concluding that the Coalition "membership is still sympathetic to the Panther cause, but they have made no actual attempt to gain membership in the [Black Panther Party]."

On October 20, 1977, the plaintiff submitted an FOIA request to the FBI seeking disclosure of all documents concerning the Coalition. The FBI released 94 documents totaling 281 pages. Most of the documents released were from a file in the FBI's New Haven office captioned "The Coalition for the Defense of the Panthers." Some of the documents were copies of materials in the FBI's main file on the Black Panther Party. Although most documents were released in their entirety, some portions were redacted. The redactions were described by the government as necessary to preserve the confidentiality of the identities of confidential sources, the name of an FBI special agent, and matters of personal privacy. On March 13, 1979, plaintiff filed this action seeking release of the withheld information. The magistrate granted plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and was affirmed in all respects by the district court. This appeal followed.

Discussion

The pertinent provision of the FOIA ("Exemption 7") exempts from disclosure:

(7) investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such records would (A) interfere with enforcement proceedings, (B) deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication, (C) constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, (D) disclose the identity of a confidential source and, in the case of a record compiled by a criminal law enforcement authority in the course of a criminal investigation, or by an agency conducting a lawful national security intelligence investigation, confidential information furnished only by the confidential source, (E) disclose investigative techniques and procedures, or (F) endanger the life or physical safety of law enforcement personnel.

5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7) (1976).

After the FBI sought to withhold the information in question under subcategories (C) and (D), the magistrate determined that the documents were not "compiled for law enforcement purposes" and thus were outside the scope of Exemption 7 entirely. This conclusion was founded upon: (i) the magistrate's factual determination that, while the Panthers were a reasonable subject of a criminal investigation, the Coalition "just could not have been credibly regarded as posing any threat whatsoever of . . . any . . . criminal offense"; and (ii) his legal conclusion that Exemption 7 applies only when the information sought under the FOIA was collected ...


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