A Southern District Court judge’s order that the federal government disclose personal information stemming from a triple murder it had previously refused to turn over has been reversed. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found that public interest does not support the information’s disclosure, simultaneously affirming that certain documents were protected by an exception of the Freedom of Information Act.
Dustin Higgs was sentenced to death after he was convicted of kidnapping and murdering three women in 1996. After the women left his apartment following an argument, Higgs convinced Willis Haynes and Victor Gloria to come with him, and the men thereafter ordered the girls into a car. They drove the women to the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, and Higgs ordered Haynes to shoot them, which he did. The three men left the bodies and threw the gun in a river.
Haynes was sentenced to life in prison, and Higgs was placed on death row at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute. In the years following his conviction, Higgs failed to appeal his conviction and sentence or seek other forms of relief.
An investigator with the Federal Community Defender Office representing Higgs sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Park Police requesting a “complete copy of everything pertaining to” the Patuxent murders. Of 738 pages of documents, Higgs received all or part of only 48, and the remainder of the request was directed to the FBI.
Higgs filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, seeking information the FBI declined to turn over due to FOIA Exemptions 6, 7(C) and 7(D), among others. Higgs asserted the exemptions were unwarranted, which cover materials that would invade personal privacy and information that “could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source.”
The Southern District Court concluded the FBI had properly withheld certain documents under Exemption 7(D), but failed to justify its use of Exemption 7(C), ordering the FBI to release all of the personal information including names of still-living people, contact information, reports of interviews, fingerprints, and rap sheets for third parties.
Finding the district court erred in concluding that the public interest called for the disclosure of the Exemption 7(C) materials, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in Dustin Higgs v. United States Park Police, 18-2826, 18-2937.
“Given the district court’s acknowledgement that at least some of the affected people were probably still alive, it was legal error to find that the government had failed to make the required threshold showing of any protected privacy interests,” Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote for the panel.
It further noted the district court erred in putting to one side the question of whether Higgs had presented evidence that would “warrant a belief by a reasonable person” that alleged impropriety occurred through government misconduct.
“Higgs has offered no reason — either as a matter of fact or as a matter of law — for us to wipe the slate clean in that manner and rule in his favor,” Wood wrote. “There are only so many bites at the apple that one person can have, and Higgs has had more than his share. The only possible conclusion on this record is that Higgs has not shown that a reasonable person could find government impropriety.”
On the flip side, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to withhold under Exemption 7(D), finding it did not need to come to a decision on the issue because all of the materials for which the government sought an exemption under 7(D) also involved a claimed 7(C) exemption.
“Higgs has had more than enough opportunities to explore the relationship between the federal prosecutor and the Maryland state prosecutor with respect to Victor Gloria’s actions. The documents he is seeking under the Freedom of Information Act need not be produced if the government can show that they fall under an exemption to the Act,” the panel concluded. “It has claimed that all are covered by Exemption 7(C), and it has asserted that some also fall under Exemption 7(D). Because Higgs has not shown that the public interest supports disclosure here, the government was entitled to summary judgment across the board.”