In a rare binding PAC opinion in favor of a public body, the PAC found that a police department properly withhold records relating to alleged sexual offenses against a minor in PAC Op. 21-002.
In October 2020, a reporter submitted a FOIA request to a police department seeking records about complaints or allegations involving a named person and a church from 2018 through 2020. The records concerned alleged sexual offenses perpetrated by an adult against a minor. The Department denied the request in its entirety citing FOIA exemptions 7(1)(a), 7(1)(b) and 7(1)(c).
After the requestor appealed the denial to the Public Access Counselor of the Attorney General’s office, the PAC issued a binding opinion finding in favor of the public body, concluding that the department did not violate FOIA by denying the FOIA request in its entirety.
First, the PAC concluded that the department properly withheld the requested records under FOIA section 7(1)(a), which exempts from disclosure information specifically prohibited from disclosure by state law, because information identifying children who are victims or alleged victims of criminal sex offenses is confidential and prohibited from disclosure by section 3 of the Privacy of Child Victims of Criminal Sexual Offenses Act.
The PAC also concluded that the Department properly withheld the requested records in their entirety under FOIA section 7(1)(c), which permits withholding information that would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy if disclosed. The department cited examples of Illinois laws taking extra precautions to protect the confidentiality of child sexual abuse information, arguing that because the records are replete with sensitive sexual abuse information, it would be nearly impossible to redact the report to remove any information that could be used to identify the minor. The PAC agreed, reasoning that the significant personal privacy interests of both the alleged victim, who was a minor at the time of the alleged offense, and the suspect, who was not arrested or charged with a crime, outweigh the relatively weak public interest in disclosure. As a result, the department properly withheld the responsive records under FOIA section 7(1)(c).
However, the PAC rejected the department’s argument that the requested records were exempt from disclosure under FOIA section 7(1)(a) based on the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (JCA). Although the department argued that it was required to withhold the records regarding alleged victims of sex offenses under JCA section 5-905(2), the PAC disagreed. Specifically, the PAC clarified that the JCA’s definition of juvenile law enforcement records expressly excludes records that identify a juvenile as a victim. Furthermore, the PAC clarified that JCA section 5-905(2) only prohibits disclosure of information identifying victims and alleged victims of sex offenses that are committed by minors. Because the law enforcement records at issue concerned alleged criminal offenses perpetrated by adults against minors, the Department improperly cited FOIA section 7(1)(a) to withhold the records under the JCA. Since the denial was justified based on the previous arguments accepted by the PAC, this did not affect the PAC’s ultimate finding that the department’s decision to withhold all of the records was proper under 7(1)(a) and 7(1)(c).
Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov, Ancel Glink