Journalist wins years-long FOIA fight against federal government

Last month, the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island granted a local journalist’s request that the federal government be required to hand over requested trial exhibits of a high-profile criminal trial. Philip Eil, a journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island, had been chasing these exhibits since the conclusion of the criminal trial in 2011. (Mr. Eil has not yet received the records—the court provided the government sixty (60) days to release the exhibits.) After multiple avenues were closed to him, including filing a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request, he filed a lawsuit in federal court in Rhode Island seeking these exhibits. (Nixon Peabody, LLP attorneys Neal J. McNamara and Jessica Schachter Jewell, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, represented Mr. Eil in this matter.)

For Mr. Eil, his request for the records has always been simple: he should be able to see what the jury saw and therefore what the government used to prosecute and convict a physician to four consecutive sentences in prison. Despite his seemingly simple request, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) withheld a large majority of the exhibits (and also provided largely redacted and essentially meaningless records), citing privacy concerns in response to Mr. Eil’s FOIA request. Because the victims were patients of the physician who was tried, a vast majority of the trial exhibits were their medical records, which clearly contained private information that otherwise would never have been public records. But they were made public when the government chose those documents to support its high-profile prosecution.

This tension—the right to public trials on the one hand and an individual’s right to privacy on the other, especially with respect to something normally so private as their medical information—was front and center at the summary judgment hearing before Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. earlier this summer. Despite the legitimate concerns on both sides, Judge McConnell asked the government how it could refuse to release the trial exhibits after the government had introduced them as part of a public trial (and failed to take any measures to protect the information in that venue).Ultimately, Judge McConnell noted the “societal benefits” of public scrutiny of judicial proceedings and commented on the “tenacious journalists” who have exposed potential flaws in criminal cases over the years, citing to the popular National Public Radio podcast Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. Weighing the private and public interests, Judge McConnell held that “[b]ecause the information petitioned for disclosure is the very information used to convict [the physician], the public interest in this information cannot be served in any way other than by releasing the court exhibits. Indeed, these particular documents are an integral part of a serious investigation and prosecution by the DEA[.]” The decision noted that certain, limited information could be redacted and that the government should renumber the exhibits, so as to limit intrusion into these individuals’ privacy (e.g., so as to avoid matching up the records to the exhibit list and/or transcript, which named these individuals by name).

The government still has time to appeal. But, for now, this ruling has squarely come down on the side of the right to public information.