Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act Updates
June 5, 2019
The flurry of activity surrounding the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) and Open Meetings Act (“OMA”) continues. An Illinois Appellate Court once again reviewed whether grand jury records may be disclosed under FOIA and held that, at least in some cases, they may. “True bills,” however, are public record as they are filed in open court, and so are generally subject to FOIA. Exemptions may allow redaction, including for names of witnesses or investigators. The Illinois Attorney General’s Office also released its annual FOIA/OMA report of 2018 activity. For more information on these updates, read below.
Appellate Court Orders Disclosure of Certain Grand Jury Records Under FOIA
We recently published an alert regarding an Illinois Supreme Court decision holding that grand jury documents are, generally, exempt from disclosure under FOIA. Recently, an Illinois Appellate Court tackled a similar question and held that, at least in some instances, grand jury documents may be disclosed.
In Williams v. Bruscato, Marvin Williams, who was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder in 1998, requested several grand jury records related to his 1998 conviction. Among records requested were “true bills” of indictment in his case. The FOIA officer for the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Office denied the request, stating that grand jury proceedings are exempt from disclosure as they are confidential under Illinois law. Williams appealed the FOIA officer’s denial, which resulted in this appellate court case.
The Court largely upheld the FOIA officer’s denial. The court agreed that many of the requested documents were protected from disclosure under Illinois law as grand jury deliberations. However, the Court noted that true bills, which indicate a grand jury has heard sufficient evidence to prosecute an individual, are public record as they are filed in open court. Therefore, the true bills were ordered to be produced. Because information within the true bills could expose names of witnesses or investigators, the Court found that the records were “partially exempt from disclosure” under 7(1)(a) and ordered the FOIA officer to redact the true bills before producing them.
Ultimately, this case reaffirms that, in most cases, grand jury records will be exempt from disclosure under FOIA. Moreover, although grand jury records that have been filed in open court may be discoverable under FOIA, redactions may be made if another FOIA exemption applies.
Attorney General’s Office Releases PAC Annual Report
The Office of the Attorney General observed Sunshine Week by releasing its annual report detailing the work of the PAC in 2018. In short, the report outlines that the PAC received 3,372 FOIA review requests and 376 OMA review requests. The report also provides summaries of the 18 binding opinions it issued in 2018. The report does not identify the number of informal guidance the PAC issued in the past year, which was likely substantial. Finally, the report offers answers to frequently asked FOIA and OMA questions.
This report is an excellent resource for public bodies to stay up to date with the PAC’s recent activities and to refresh employees on the relevant rules. For example, the FOIA FAQ section of the document reminds FOIA Officers that agreed extensions between the requester and the public body to the FOIA response timelines must be in writing. The OMA FAQ section of the document includes a number of commonly asked questions regarding calling and conducting public meetings. We encourage you to review the report and contact Jackie Wernz, John Swinney, or another Franczek attorney with any questions.