ATTORNEY GENERAL'S BINDING OPINION HOLDS THAT EMAILS SENT AND RECEIVED ON PERSONAL EMAIL ACCOUNTS THAT PERTAIN TO PUBLIC BUSINESS ARE "PUBLIC RECORDS" UNDER FOIA

August 29, 2016

  By James A. Petrungaro and Anthony Scariano III

            Earlier this month, the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (“PAC”) Office issued a binding opinion that has sweeping implications under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). The opinion stemmed from a FOIA request submitted by CNN to the Chicago Police Department for “all emails related to Laquan McDonald from Police Department email accounts and personal email accounts where business was discussed” for 12 police officers within two date ranges. As you may recall, Laquan McDonald was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer in October of 2014 and the release of the police video related to the incident sparked outrage, protests and the firing of CPD Chief Gary McCarthy, among other CPD changes. 

             The PAC’s opinion addressed whether emails on the officers’ personal email accounts met FOIA’s definition of “public records,” which includes electronic communications “pertaining to the transaction of public business...having been prepared by or for, or having been or being used by, received by, in the possession of, or under the control of any public body.” Ultimately, the PAC determined that the emails on the officers’ personal accounts were public records.

             The PAC reasoned that because public bodies always act through its employees and officials, emails discussing public business that those employees and officials prepare and possess do not lose their public character merely because the public body does not possess them on its servers. To the PAC, the inquiry under FOIA should be focused on the content of correspondence (such as emails), and not the method by which the correspondence is sent. 

             The PAC also reiterated the Illinois General Assembly’s intent when it created FOIA, which was to ensure that the public had full access to records pertaining to the transaction of public business. If the General Assembly’s intent was ignored, the PAC opined, public officials would be able to circumvent FOIA’s reach by using personal devices to discuss public business. The PAC did not address whether its decision concerning the reach of the Illinois FOIA is permitted by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable government searches and seizures of persons and their property.

            The City of Chicago has not yet announced whether it will appeal the PAC’s decision and its time for doing so has not yet expired. Although the PAC’s decision is binding on only the City of Chicago, the broad ruling of the decision and the likelihood that the PAC would issue a similar ruling in other cases means that it is effectively the law of the land unless and until overturned by a judge. Your attorneys at Scariano, Himes and Petrarca stand ready to assist you with navigatinthis far-reaching FOIA decision.