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Posted on Tue, May 22, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

U-M law clinic sues when Detroit Police Department can't afford to access old reports

By John Counts

The City of Detroit lost access to records of murders and other crimes that occurred before 2004 because it failed to pay its bill to a storage company, the Michigan Innocence Clinic alleges in a lawsuit.

The clinic, a center within the University of Michigan Law School that investigates cases that may have resulted in a wrongful conviction, is in the process of settling a suit that alleges the Detroit Police Department violated the Freedom of Information Act nine times in the past year.

The lawsuit, which was filed April 19 in the Washtenaw Circuit Court, claims the department denied FOIA requests because the city of Detroit hadn’t paid Iron Mountain, the company that manages the police department’s reports prior to 2004.


The Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School said it has reached a settlement with Detroit over denial of Freedom of Information Act requests.

Court records indicate the city of Detroit’s written response to a request of information in the 1999 homicide of Maceo Vanover read: “The record pertains to a homicide which occurred prior to 2004 and, if the record exists, would be archived at an outside vendor’s storage facility. Due to non-payment of storage fees, the city is unable to retrieve any records from the vendor.”

The MIC said it received a similar written response to requests in eight other homicide cases going back to 1992.

In a phone conversation on Sept. 27, 2011, an attorney with the City of Detroit Law Department told a representative from MIC said the city was locked out of the storage facility because the city had failed to pay, according to court records.

“That’s not a legitimate reason to deny a FOIA request,” said Imran Syed, a staff attorney at MIC.

The information the clinic gleans from old records helps “fill in the missing pieces” in cases in which the wrong person may be sitting in prison, Syed said.

“One of the biggest ways we can do that is through the Freedom of Information Act,” he said.

In the lawsuit, the MIC claims: “The records requested are essential to the plaintiffs’ investigations of alleged negligence and impropriety in the defendants’ performance of its public functions … (The) defendants’ police investigation and forensic laboratory practices have been the subject of highly publicized revelations of systemic error and fraud.”

The lawsuit goes on to say that several recent exonerations have shown the Detroit Police Department’s improper actions have contributed to wrongful convictions of innocent citizens.

The clinic submits a high number of FOIA requests specifically to the Detroit Police Department because that’s where many of the homicide cases the clinic investigates occurred, Syed said.

In its original answer to the complaint, the city said that its denials of information requests were “neither arbitrary nor capricious,” as the suit claimed. The city also cited several Michigan statutes that say the department does not have to disclose such information, according to court records.

Phone messages left with the city of Detroit’s Law Department were not returned.

MIC’s attorney, Samuel Damren said that last week the two parties reached an agreement in the suit.

“I have every reason to believe the documents will be produced,” Damren said. “I think Detroit and the storage facility will make a good faith effort.”

When contacted, Iron Mountain said it does not disclose information about its clients. According to its website, the company is a global information management service assisting 140,000 organizations in 39 countries on five continents with storing, protecting and managing information.

John Counts covers cops and courts for He can be reached at or you can follow him on Twitter.


Michael K.

Tue, May 22, 2012 : 4:49 p.m.

Just to correct a couple of misconceptions here: The lawers and law students do an incredible job - pro bono - helping the poorest and most mistreated INNOCENT people get justice from a hostile and indifferent system. They devote themselves to fighting exactly these types of bureaucratic obstacles to prove that innocent people have been imprisoned for 7, 10, 13, 20 or more years. While certain institutions may have funds, the money flows to servicing the rich. These lawyers give up lucrative careers that would pay them 10x as much, or more, to work in an underfunded "social service" capacity that manages a threadbare operation. Precisely because they are on the side of the poor and least powerful in our society. There have been 239 exonerations to date. The average time served by this innocent people is 13.5 years.


Tue, May 22, 2012 : 3:39 p.m.

Mohomed, I would have voted your comment up a thousand times but I'm only allowed the once. It's sad to see people here criticize Detroit when they haven't stepped foot in that city. It's disheartening to see the burned out houses, the drug deals on the open street, the daily shootings (the ones we hear about on the news are the tip of the iceberg). It's all well and good to sit here in comfortable middle class Ann Arbor and tell Detroit that they should find the money to fulfill UMs desires. That's a safe and fun game. However, their schools are failing, the police are overwhelmed and underfunded, the city isn't safe for anyone. I say this as someone who worked in Detroit for about 7 years and now attends school there. UM can demand information from the failing infrastructure while paying the retreating dean $50,000 and a bonus 4 month paid vacation for stepping down from her job? That's total hypocrisy. Try to actually help Detroit instead of using them as a site for your research and publicity.

E Claire

Tue, May 22, 2012 : 5:06 p.m.

So Michagander, should I take your response as a "Yes"? Hate UofM all you want, this is not about them. The records are not lost, the city didn't pay the bill and so the storage company won't release the records. Did you even read the story or did you just have to make a negative comment about the University?


Tue, May 22, 2012 : 4:58 p.m.

I forgot that UM always has their own best interest at a distant second. The Detroit Police Department should stop what they're doing right now and find those records! They have just as many employees sitting around with nothing to do as UM does, they need something else to do besides investigate current crime or patrol the streets.

E Claire

Tue, May 22, 2012 : 4:21 p.m.

This is not about "fulfilling UMs desires", it's about getting innocent people out of jail. Would you sacrifice your freedom to save Detroit a few bucks?


Tue, May 22, 2012 : 2:11 p.m.

I used to try getting Police Reports all the time from Detroit Police. It was an experience to say the least. First you actually had to go to the District Office because nobody would fax or email to you. Then you would have to wait a least an hour for them to get an outdated computer to warm up and function. Then they would have to find the report and then they would have to find a printer that worked. It was the most sloppy gross excuse for a police agency I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot). Those Officers have the toughest police job in America probably and their brass and resources are garbage. Detroit is turning into third world city with about 80,000 homes and buildings rotting as I write this. No "caring" outspoken liberal or conservative from Ann Arbor actually does anything for this nightmare city only 35 minutes away. Not that I'm judging them but all this talk I hear in the press and blogs is cheap.


Tue, May 22, 2012 : 12:53 p.m.

What do you expect from the City of Detroit? It has been run by Democrats since the 1960's!

Linda Peck

Tue, May 22, 2012 : 12:38 p.m.

This is another travesty of justice in a town not known for its veracity. I am sure the money for storage for the data is available somewhere. It would seem that type of charge should not be very high.


Tue, May 22, 2012 : 11:33 a.m.

How was the case settled? It seems like a big whole in the story. What if I want to FOIA a similar recrod? Has the probem been fixed or is it only fixed for UM? Does this reveal a problem with privitizing this function? What other records are stored by the same vendor?


Tue, May 22, 2012 : 11:31 a.m.

On the surface, this looks more Detroit incompetence. On the othe hand, how convenient to deny FOIA requests because they cannot access the records. As for the comment about "rich lawyers" and litigation... You don't get litigate merely because you can. When requests are denied repeatedly, whether out of incompetence or malice, it appears that filing a suit in court is the only way to get the attention of the people that are "in charge."


Tue, May 22, 2012 : 10:54 a.m.

Instead of paying rich attorneys to litigate, they can help the City of Detroit, who needs money, to pay the storage bill. I am sure that paying this storage bill is low on their priority list when compared to paying police, fire personnel, teachers, etc.