In December 2023, an investigative journalist submitted a
FOIA request to a Sheriff’s Office seeking police reports about a person who
went missing from a local hospital and was subsequently confirmed as deceased
by a local coroners officer. The Sheriff’s Office denied the request in its
entirety claiming the
responsive reports were highly personal and private, and the privacy interests
of the parties involved in the reports outweighed the requestor and public
interest in this information. 

The requestor submitted a request for review with the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC),
claiming that because the missing person is deceased, the decedent has a
diminished expectation of privacy and the circumstances surrounding how the
decedent went missing is a matter of public interest. In its response to the
PAC, the Sheriff’s Office also argued that one of the reports was exempt from
disclosure because the records related to an ongoing investigation and law enforcement proceedings.

In PAC. Op 24-006, the PAC concluded that the Sheriff’s Office improperly
withheld the responsive records in violation of FOIA. 

With respect to the Sheriff’s Office claim that release would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy, the PAC balanced the journalist’s and the public’s interest in disclosure
against the degree of invasion of personal privacy to the decedent’s family members and determined that the
journalist and the public had significant interests in learning about the facts concerning the highly publicized disappearance and death
of a missing person, and those interests outweighed the privacy interests of the decedent’s surviving family members.

The PAC acknowledged that the immediate surviving family
members of a decedent possess distinct privacy interests in highly sensitive,
gruesome, intrusive or anguish-inducing records concerning decedents (e.g.,
postmortem photographs of decedent’s body). However, the request at issue did
not seek graphic images, recordings, or details, nor does the Sheriff’s Office
have any such responsive records. Instead, because the responsive records to
this FOIA request concerned the Sheriff’s Office investigation into decedent’s
disappearance, which pertains to the public duties of the Sheriff’s Office, the
responsive reports were not exempt from disclosure in their entirety pursuant
to FOIA exemption 7(1)(b) or 7(1)(c).

The PAC also rejected the Sheriff’s Office argument that the public interest was diminished because there was no threat to the public, finding that the legitimate
public interest in a highly publicized investigation into the disappearance of
a community member was not diminished simply because the incidents did not involve
threats or harm to the public at large.

The PAC also rejected the Sheriff’s claim that the records would interfere with pending or contemplated law enforcement proceedings or obstruct an ongoing criminal investigation. 

Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov, Ancel Glink