WASHINGTON – A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Marshals Service to give a reporter its records on the sale of seized property, saying privacy concerns were outweighed by a “valid and important public interest in the records.”
U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz on Tuesday ordered the marshals to give The (Baltimore) Sun the addresses of seized properties and the names of people who have bought them since 1993, in response to a 1998 Freedom of Information Act request from the paper.
Sun reporter Jim Haner had asked for the documents to see if drug dealers were among the buyers of the seized properties. At the time, he was working on a series of stories on a convicted drug dealer who owned approximately 125 row houses in Baltimore.
The marshals eventually turned over the documents, but blacked out all but general descriptions of the properties and the city, county or ZIP code where they were located, according to court documents.
Marshals had refused to release any other information, saying it would violate the buyers’ privacy. They cited an exemption to the FOI Act that allowed law enforcement records to be withheld if releasing them would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Motz said that exemption could be applied to third parties who are dragged into law enforcement investigations or people, like witnesses, who would be in danger if their identities were revealed. But he said he “cannot perceive” any harm in revealing the names of people who voluntarily go to buy property at a public government auction.
“I know of no rational, negative connection the public would make between a legal purchaser of property from the United States government and the unlawful activity of the prior owner that caused the property to be seized,” Motz wrote.
He also wrote that the chance that the new owner “will be targeted by the prior property owners or their criminal associates” could not be prevented by withholding the records. The previous owners could figure out who lived in their old house simply by going to the address and looking, he said.
Any expectation of privacy is outweighed by the public interest in keeping the records open, Motz said.
“Because obtaining information to act as a `watchdog’ of the government is a well-recognized public interest in the FOIA context, a valid public interest exists in the names and addresses at issue in this case,” Motz wrote.
Mary R. Craig, an attorney for The Sun, said it was “inexplicable to have to sue for the address,” noting that information on property sales is already public.
“Anyone could go to the land records in Maryland and find out not just the names, but even the purchase amount,” she said.
Craig said the ruling means that marshals will have to provide dates that the government turned over properties, estimated and appraised values, their county locations and how they were disposed, along with the names and addresses of the buyers.
An attorney for the marshal’s office did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday and other officials declined comment.
Sun Editor Bill Marimow said he was “pleased that the principle of public information has been vindicated.” He could not say whether the information would still be useful, however, more than two years after it was requested.