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