San Diego Refuses To Answer FOIA Requests About Drones Because 'There Is Very Little Public Benefit'
from the keeping-the-public-in-the-dark-for-their-own-benefit dept
A few months ago, MuckRock and the EFF teamed up to start a drone watch effort, in which they send Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) — or the local equivalent — requests to local governments and police departments, seeking to find out information on local law enforcement using drones. At last count, over 200 such requests have been made. You can track them here. As you might imagine, they’re getting very varied responses, with some saying that there are no responsive documents. In many cases, it’s likely that this is true.
However, the folks at MuckRock discovered something interesting in looking over some of the responses. While the San Diego County Sheriff’s office initially stated that they had no responsive documents, reviewing the Seattle Police Department’s response suggested that San Diego was lying. Why? Because the Seattle release shows an email from a manufacturer of drones, Datron World Communications, to Seattle police in which they share a sales quote that was sent to San Diego for a drone, the Scout UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).
Attached is the quotation recently provided to the SD Sheriff’s CID team. They visited Datron’s facility and experienced the system with all three cameras and left with a flashdrive full of personal footage and a new found purpose for submitting their wish-list early. Use this quote as a reference point for configuring your system. With this we should be able to tailor an ideal system for your needs and gain marketing support for ‘special pricing’ specifically for Seattle PD.
Given this contradiction, MuckRock sent a followup request to San Diego, asking the Sheriff’s office to explain this newly revealed information. In response, the sheriff’s “legal advisor” sent a note saying that “we decline to comment on the sales quotation referenced in your September 4, 2012 letter.”
As is true in most states, California’s public records law provides that documents related to equipment purchases are matters of public record unless exempted by statute. Accordingly, the San Diego County Sheriff and other public agencies have the latitude to justify denial of public records requests, but not to “deny comment” when faced with such a request.
After continuing to press the San Diego Sheriff’s office, MuckRock was first told that San Diego had not purchased such drones and then that it will not release the records because “there is very little public benefit in the release of such records,” in part because the quote from the company had not resulted in a purchase. The office then notes that the request is denied “on the grounds that any information and/or records obtained by the Sheriff’s Department are protected by the Deliberative Process privilege, as well as the Official Information privilege (Evidence Code 1040).”
Again, MuckRock notes that San Diego is misreading the law in question:
But public records law puts the burden of evidence not on those who seek disclosure, but on those who would keep them from public view. Evidence Code section 1040 of California’s disclosure law, which the San Diego County Sheriff’s office has invoked as a basis for its denial, provides that public agencies may refuse to disclose official information in the case that such disclosure “is against the public interest because there is a necessity for preserving the confidentiality of the information that outweighs the necessity for disclosure in the interest of justice.”
The onus is on the Sheriff to demonstrate how releasing the documents sought by MuckRock would injure the public interest.
As they note, the public has a “right to know” when their government is using drones to surveil the public, and it’s unfortunate that some governments seem to be stonewalling requests for information.