June 13, 2023
The Illinois Attorney General Public Access Counselor (PAC) has issued an important FOIA decision on the disclosure of juvenile law enforcement records that also document the arrest of adult suspects.
For nearly a decade, the PAC has held in non-binding opinions, and explained in its FOIA Guide for Law Enforcement, that “[i]f a record such as a police report contains information about both adults and minors investigated or charged with crimes, the information relating to the adults may not be withheld under the [Juvenile Court Act, 705 ILCS 405/1-1 et seq. (JCA)]”. FOIA Guide for Law Enforcement, p. 23-24; see also 2016 PAC 45410; 2023 PAC 74799. Thus, the PAC previously mandated that law enforcement agencies redact information relating to minors, but release the rest of the juvenile law enforcement record to the public upon request.
These previous PAC decisions created significant concern among law enforcement agencies because the JCA mandates that law enforcement agencies keep all juvenile law enforcement records strictly confidential unless the requester is one of the parties specifically authorized by the JCA to obtain these records (such as parents, the juvenile offender’s attorney, and the state’s attorneys). The only exception to this general rule is if a requester obtains permission from the Juvenile Court after a showing of “good cause” to obtain the records. 705 ILCS 405/1-7.
The text of the JCA provides no exception allowing for the release of a juvenile law enforcement record simply because that record also contains information about an adult suspect or arrestee. Moreover, the JCA provides that willful violations of the JCA are a class C misdemeanor and that public bodies may be liable for monetary damages caused by the unlawful release of juvenile law enforcement records. Id.
On July 12, 2023, the PAC reevaluated its interpretation of the JCA in a binding opinion. The PAC for the first time recognized that law enforcement agencies must keep juvenile law enforcement records confidential regardless of whether those records also document an adult suspect or arrestee. Public Access Opinion 23-010. In this case, the Village of La Grange received a FOIA request from a reporter seeking a police report that documented both the arrest of a juvenile and an adult. The Village provided the requester the adult’s arrest card and mug shot, neither of which contained any information about the juvenile. However, the Village withheld the police report documenting the investigation and asserted that the release of the police report to the reporter was prohibited by the JCA because the record constituted a juvenile law enforcement record based on the plain language of the JCA. The requester then challenged that withholding to the PAC.
The Village (represented by our office) explained in its response to the challenge that the PAC’s prior interpretation of the JCA placed municipalities in an untenable position because they may face criminal and civil liability, and violate the privacy of minors and their families, if they release juvenile law enforcement records. Further, if public bodies ignore the PAC’s prior decisions, they are subject to increased risk of litigation for potentially violating FOIA.
Thus, the Village requested that the PAC reassess its position. In its binding opinion, the PAC found in the Village’s favor:
“The JCA clearly and unambiguously requires that a police report in which a minor is investigated, arrested, or charged with an offense be kept confidential. Although an adult cannot be subject to a juvenile court proceeding, the plain language of the JCA does not permit disclosure, to an authorized individual, of the parts of a police report that concern an adult arrestee when the police report also concerns a minor suspect.”
Public Access Opinion 22-010, p. 12.
The PAC provided two primary reasons for its reversal. First, the PAC noted that there were amendments made to the JCA in 2018 that more clearly defined what constitutes a juvenile law enforcement record. Prior to 2018, the JCA did not define what constituted a “juvenile law enforcement record.” The JCA was amended in 2018 to provide a broad definition that includes all “records of arrest […] or any other records or documents maintained by any law enforcement agency relating to a minor suspected of committing an offense.” 705 ILCS 405/1-3.
Second, the PAC relied on a 2022 Appellate Court decision, Calloway v. Chicago Police Department, in which the Court determined that the JCA’s confidentiality provision must be strictly followed even when confidentiality does not advance the goal of juvenile rehabilitation stated in the JCA. 2022 IL App (1st) 210090. In Calloway, a requester sought a police report documenting an investigation into a deceased juvenile. The court explained: “[n]one of [the JCA’s] privacy provisions contain any language explicitly or implicitly limiting the scope of these protections where the records at issue involve a minor that is deceased.” Id. ¶25. The PAC applied this same reasoning, explaining that “the JCA contains no language limiting the scope of its protections for police reports that include both juvenile and adult arrestees.” Public Access Opinion 23-010, p. 10. Thus, the PAC wrote that if the requester desired to obtain the police report, he had to follow the procedures set forth in the JCA and file a petition with the Juvenile Court and show “good cause” for obtaining the record.
While the PAC made clear that all juvenile law enforcement records must remain confidential except as specifically provided in the JCA, the PAC also went to great lengths to explain that the JCA’s confidentiality provisions do not extend to the basic police blotter information involving adult arrestees. The PAC credited the Village with releasing this information and explained that law enforcement agencies still are mandated by Section 2.15 of FOIA to release basic information about an adult’s arrest, such as the adult’s charges and mug shot.
The PAC decision is significant for law enforcement agencies, which now have clarity on the scope of the JCA and can now more easily comply with the JCA’s directives without fear of a FOIA violation.
For more information, contact Benjamin L. Schuster, Caitlyn R. Culbertson, or any Elrod Friedman attorney.
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