Skip to main content

In a binding PAC opinion, the Chicago Police Department (“CPD”) was found to have violated FOIA by failing to confer with a requester to narrow the scope of his request. The CPD received a FOIA request from a journalist with the Chicago Tribune requesting all subpoenas from federal agencies and any search warrants served on the CPD for a one month time frame. The CPD responded to the request with notice that the request was unduly burdensome because it did not have an automated tracking system, so 3,344 subpoenas would have to be manually reviewed. In the same response, the CPD invited the requester to provide a new, narrower request.

In response, the requester asked to confer to narrow his request. He also asked questions about how CPD kept and tracked records. The requester received no response to his original request to confer and attempted to contact the CPD on two more occasions, but was likewise ignored. Finally, the requester submitted a Request for Review to the PAC. Thereafter, the CPD responded to the requester and explained the limitations and capabilities of its subpoena tracking system for “future FOIA requests.”

The PAC determined that the CPD violated FOIA by failing to offer the requester “an opportunity to confer” so the requester could narrow the scope of the request to manageable proportions. The CPD’s repeated failures to confer with the requester, despite numerous attempts by the requester to narrow his request, was a violation of the FOIA Section 3(g) requirement, which states that “the public body shall extend to the person making the request an opportunity to confer with it in an attempt to reduce the request to manageable proportions.”

Additionally, the PAC found that CPD failed to specify why the request was unduly burdensome, including the extent to which it would burden the operations of the CPD (i.e., how many responsive records would need to be reviewed, how many employee hours it would require, etc.). Interestingly, the PAC noted that the CPD originally said there was no automated mechanism for tracking, querying, and categorizing records, but it later explained that the subpoena tracking system was able to distinguish between federal and state subpoenas as well as criminal and civil subpoenas.

The PAC also found that CPD incorrectly asserted that all responsive grand jury subpoenas are exempt under FOIA exemption 7(1)(a), which exempts information specifically prohibited from disclosure by federal or State law or rules and regulations implementing federal or State law.

This PAC opinion reinforces the requirements under FOIA Section 3(g) that public bodies should provide specific details about why a FOIA request is unduly burdensome and must actually attempt to confer with a requester in good faith to narrow the FOIA request to more manageable proportions.

Contact Steve Richart, Danielle Schneider, or any member of our Board Governance/Corporate practice group with your FOIA inquiries.

Source: Public Access Opinion 21-001