DOJ forced to open electronic case files

A judge has ordered the Justice Department to release a database of information on federal prosecutions never before made public.

In a recent decision, a federal court directed the department to share information from its case management system, including records on what types of prosecutions federal prosecutors are bringing, how successful prosecutors have been, and what types of sentences and monetary awards the government is winning.

Previously, the government only would reveal select pieces of this information. But a lawsuit by the public advocacy group Public Citizen on behalf of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), Syracuse, N.Y., has led to the department's agreement to release the information.

"The release of these databases marks a milestone in the fight for more public access to federal documents," said Mike Tankersley, a Litigation Group attorney for Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen. "This lawsuit affirms the public's right to access complex databases that show how public servants are performing their work."

The fact that DOJ lost the lawsuit and that the databases are being released is "big," said Jeff Stachewicz, founder and director of Washington, D.C.-based FOIA Group Inc. Stachewicz, who files more than 1,000 Freedom of Information Act requests a month on behalf of companies, attorneys and other clients, said the ruling "opens up the field of information a little bit more, and that's what FOIA is all about—making information more accessible to people for free or as cost-effective as possible."

Also, increased use of the Internet within government has changed the climate enveloping FOIA. Not long ago, the federal government was reticent about releasing information, he said. But as federal agencies launch World Wide Web sites every day and post more and more information on the Internet, the government is becoming more forthcoming with information.

"I've seen FOIA move from one spectrum to another, and I don't think anybody knows where it will be five years from now," said Stachewicz, who before founding FOIA Group was an attorney with the Army.

The lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of New York after TRAC was refused access to case management data from the U.S. attorney's offices in Minnesota and Kentucky. TRAC plans to use the data to examine in detail how prosecutorial groups within DOJ—as well as the department at large—go about deciding what cases to pursue and how they perform in court.

Susan Long, TRAC co-director, said the lawsuit victory opens a host of information that DOJ compiles as it engages in prosecutions, including information about potential suspects—minus their names—in criminal cases that the department is examining.

It also opens information from other federal agencies. Many agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Environmental Protection Agency, have rules that citizens must follow. Breaking the rules is criminal, and such violations are prosecuted by DOJ, which serves as the attorney for the federal government. Much of the information other agencies give to the department to conduct its prosecutions will be made available as a result of the lawsuit.

Tankersley said the data will be pulled together to show, for example, how many drug prosecutions or white-collar-crime prosecutions were pursued out of individual U.S. attorney's offices, and how the 94 offices fared in terms of indictments.

He said DOJ argued that the databases should not be made public because "they didn't want to be bothered with the processing that would be involved," because some things would remain private.DOJ officials did not return repeated phone calls.

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