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Appeals Court Sides With Florida Prisons in Public Records Dispute With Miami Herald

| August 29, 2016

They don't even have to explain. (© FlaglerLive)

They don’t even have to explain. (© FlaglerLive)

An appeals court Monday said the Florida Department of Corrections did not violate the state’s public-records law by refusing to provide specific explanations about why it would not disclose information sought by the Miami Herald.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned the ruling of a Leon County circuit judge, who said the department was required to provide item-by-item legal explanations for its decisions to black out information on public records requested by the Herald — a process known as redacting the information.

The ruling said the department provided “heavily redacted” records to the newspaper and a form that cited various legal exemptions that agency officials used in making the decisions. But the form did not detail which legal exemption was used to justify each redaction.

The Herald sought a specific legal reason for each redaction, but the appeals court said Monday that wasn’t required by state law.

“Here, appellees’ (the Herald and individual plaintiffs) complaint relied on a single statute, … which they claim requires DOC to ‘identify, for each redaction/black mark, the specific statutory basis for DOC’s claim that the information concealed by the black mark is exempt from the public records law.’ However, as DOC correctly argues, the plain language of this statute does not require the agency to state the basis of the exemption applicable to ‘each redaction,’ ” said the ruling, written by appeals-court Judge T. Kent Wetherell and joined by judges Joseph Lewis and Stephanie Ray. “Instead, the statute simply requires the agency to ‘state the basis of the exemption that (the agency) contends is applicable to the record’ and to provide a statutory citation for the exemption. … Thus, (the law) plainly requires only record-by-record — not redaction-by-redaction — identification of the exemptions authorizing the redactions in each record.”

But Ray wrote a concurring opinion that indicated she would consider future challenges. She wrote that the agency “produced voluminous documents, with hundreds of redactions, and only provided appellees with a cover form indicating the agency’s position that the documents, as a whole, contained information that was subject to one or more of five statutory exemptions.”

“Given that the undisputed purpose of the public records act is to promote government transparency, appellees’ concern is significant,” Ray wrote. “However, this court’s opinion should not foreclose a future challenge to an agency’s method of identifying the basis of claimed exemptions in a public records response if it essentially renders the mandates of Florida’s public records act meaningless. An agency is required to provide a record-by-record identification of claimed exemptions, and, upon request, must state in writing and with particularity the reasons for its conclusion that a record is exempt. … Whether, and to what extent, DOC complied with these requirements in this case and, therefore, fulfilled the purpose of the public records act are not issues currently before us.”

The ruling, which overturned a decision by Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds, did not discuss the details of the underlying records sought by the Herald. But the newspaper has done extensive reporting about deaths and abuse of inmates and posted a story last year saying it had filed a lawsuit alleging the department had violated the public-records-law by withholding investigative information.

“The Herald has requested copies of the agency’s investigations into some of those cases, only to find that reports were so heavily redacted that it is impossible to know what led to the inmate’s death,” the Sept. 1 story said. “In addition, other reports involving what appears to sexual harassment and abuse are also redacted so heavily that the nature of what happened is obscured.”

The story said the department contended the blacked-out details pertained to medical information about inmates or would reveal information that could endanger officers or prison security.

–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

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