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BATF v. City of Chicago

Top News

  • Supreme Court Won't Decide FOIA Case. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided (pdf) not to consider a pending case that pitted gun owner privacy interests against the public's right to know. The Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in BATF v. City of Chicago on March 4, but has sent the case back to the lower court to consider the effect of a recently enacted legislative provision that prohibits the BATF from expending funds to disclose records concerning gun ownership. EPIC had filed an amicus brief (pdf) arguing that, through the use of technology, the government could encode personal information before releasing it, thereby permitting public oversight of government activities while protecting individual privacy rights. (Feb. 27, 2003)
  • EPIC to Sup. Ct.: Protect Privacy and Open Gov't. EPIC, joined by 16 legal scholars and technical experts, today filed an amicus brief [pdf] in BATF v. City of Chicago, a Freedom of Information Act case pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. The brief argues that, through the use of technology, the government can encode personal information before releasing it, thereby permitting public oversight of government activities while protecting individual privacy rights. EPIC tells the Court that the enactment of "electronic" FOIA legislation in 1996 constitutes a congressional recognition that technology can be employed to enhance open government. (Feb. 5, 2003)

Introduction

In Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) v. City of Chicago, the Supreme Court was poised to review the decision of the BATF to withhold records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of individuals' firearm purchases. BATF claimed that the records are exempt under the FOIA, and that release of the records would constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy. The City of Chicago (Chicago) sought the records in order to provide evidence in a separate case challenging the marketing and distribution of firearms to city residents where possession of most guns is illegal. Unfortunately, the Court will not review the case this term because of legislation passed by Congress that prohibits BATF from spending agency funds on release of the information in question.

Procedural History

Chicago originally brought a civil suit against several firearms manufacturers, wholesalers, and dealers, alleging that they unreasonably facilitated the unlawful possession and use of firearms in the city. To substantiate these claims, Chicago requested the disclosure of nationwide data from the BATF's trace and sales databases under provisions of the FOIA. While BATF denied this request originally, eventually the agency provided some of the information. However, BATF did not provide the names and addresses within both the Trace Database and the Multiple Sales Databases records in addition to other information.

The City then brought suit against ATF under the FOIA seeking the withheld information. BATF withheld the requested information on the grounds that it fell within three exemptions relating to personal privacy and law enforcement records. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court entered judgment in favor of Chicago, holding that the exemptions did not apply because the information did not constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy, and that the law enforcement exemption did not apply because BATF had failed to explain adequately how the information could interfere with law enforcement proceedings. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's decision.

The case was granted certiorari by the Supreme Court in November 2002 and was scheduled to be heard in March 2003. However, Congress passed legislation shortly before the case was to be heard that prohibits BATF from expending funds to disclose records concerning gun ownership. The Supreme Court remanded the case to a lower court to determine what effect the legislation has on the case.

EPIC's Role

EPIC is participating as an amicus in this case in order to illustrate that, through the use of technology, the government can code the information before releasing it, thereby shedding the necessary sunlight on government activities while protecting individual privacy rights. EPIC is further arguing that the enactment of "electronic" FOIA legislation in 1996 constitutes a congressional recognition that technology can be employed to enhance open government.

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