from the utilizing-the-'because-reasons'-public-records-exemption dept
Despite there being multiple copies of nearly-identical FBI/Stingray non-disclosure agreements in the public domain at this point, the Tacoma (WA) Police Department still refuses to provide FOIA requesters with an unredacted version of its own NDA.
In late 2014, the Tacoma Police Dept. handed Seattle's Phil Mocek a copy of its NDA, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, failed to disclose much about the non-disclosure agreement. The only things left unredacted were the two opening paragraphs of the agreement and the signatures at the end of it. In the middle was a solid wall of black ink.
A year later and nothing has changed. Other Stingray/FBI NDAs have been liberated via public records requests with very little redacted, but the Tacoma PD still won't provide Mocek with an unredacted version of its. So, Mocek has filed a lawsuit against the law enforcement agency.
The complaint, filed Sept. 17 in Pierce County Superior Court by a Seattle advocacy group, contends police and the city’s legal advisers wrongly cite an exemption in state public-records law that protects “specific investigative records.”All good points and all ones that can be easily verified by reading any of the other NDAs acquired by FOIA requesters. (Or just reading the Tacoma PD's in camera...) There are many reasons the Tacoma PD may not want to make this agreement public -- like the fact that it will drop cases rather than reveal Stingray use -- but none of those are valid reasons for withholding the bulk of the agreement.
“The redacted information is not within this exemption, as it is not intelligence gathered, nor results of intelligence gathering, nor intelligence gathered in a specific case, and is not specific intelligence information,” the lawsuit states.
“The information in the agreement was created before there was any investigation at all conducted with the Stingray equipment, and before any specific intelligence information was gathered with it.”
The Tacoma PD hasn't singled out Mocek with its over-redaction. The Tacoma News Tribune requested the same document and received the same amount of black toner.
If the court finds in favor of Mocek and the Center for Open Policing (the other plaintiff in the suit), it could cost Tacoma's taxpayers a fair amount of cash.
The lawsuit filed against Tacoma police seeks cash penalties calculated by the number of days — 395 – that passed since Mocek, the Seattle activist, made his original request and later filed suit.That's a lot of money to be shelling out for overly-redacting an agreement that's 99% boilerplate and already publicly-available thanks to other FOIA requests targeting other law enforcement agencies. While it's true the Tacoma PD applied its heavy redaction before the others were made public, it still has yet to release an unredacted version of its agreement..
Under state law, courts can levy fines of up to $100 per day for wrongful withholding of records.
It could be the black ink adds a layer of foreboding secrecy to the now-commonplace document. This undoubtedly assists the Tacoma PD in projecting its law enforcement mystique -- the same thing it used to keep its Stingray acquisition secret for more than five years. It wasn't until the PD needed to purchase an upgrade to its equipment that it finally was forced to deal with public scrutiny of its surveillance equipment. This new scrutiny included town legislators, who apparently approved the original purchase without question. Even now, with the PD's subterfuge exposed, legislators still believe the devices are being used to do good things, so why worry too much about all the obfuscation?
With a payout of $40,000 potentially on the line, the city might finally start asking its police force for a little more transparency and accountability.