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Arizona Court Equates Prison Gang Dropouts with Confidential Informants to Require Redaction of STG Files

by Dale Chappell

The Arizona Court of Appeals held on September 25, 2019 that the possibility of information about gang members who had dropped out or were not in “good standing” falling into the wrong hands leaned in favor of redacting records released to a defendant’s attorney, overturning a trial judge’s order that had released the records in full.

The case had been appealed by the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) after Pima County Superior Court Judge Michael Butler granted the release of an unredacted Security Threat Group (STG) file to a defense lawyer who was defending prisoner Tim Weaver in a capital murder case. Weaver was one of four prisoners charged in the 2017 killing of another prisoner, Joseph Zawacki.

After a hearing on whether to release the unredacted STG file, Butler ruled that nothing prohibited the release of the full file. The judge said the records, which were almost a decade old, did not identify any “confidential informants” that would endanger anyone.

The Court of Appeals, however, disagreed. The ADC had established its STG file policy in 1991 in an effort to stem gang violence in state prisons, the court explained. A validated gang member is segregated from the general population, and information on his gang ties is placed in his STG file. The file also contains information on gang members who have dropped out or are no longer in good standing with the gang. This information includes details on family members of ex-gang members and the workings of the gang itself, the appellate court noted, in describing how the STG file would pose potential risks to people other than the ex-gang member.

STG Supervisor Lance Uehling said in a declaration that the Aryan Brotherhood (AB), the gang involved in Weaver’s case, was “one of [the ADC’s] most dangerous Security Threat Groups.” He added that “even though the list was compiled 10 years ago or more, that information in the hands of current AB members would endanger the life and safety of some of the people on the list.” Uehling would know, as he and his family had been targeted by the Aryan Brotherhood, which led to the prosecution of gang members in 2015.

Under A.R.S. § 31-221(C), information may not be released if it would identify confidential informants. “The information before the respondent judge [Butler] established that debriefed inmates are not materially distinguishable from confidential informants for purposes of § 31-221(C)(1),” the Court of Appeals wrote. In other words, records on ex-gang members and those not in good standing are similar to records about confidential informants, and must not be released. Judge Butler had abused his discretion in releasing the unredacted STG file, the appellate court held, therefore his order was reversed. See: Arizona DOC v. Butler, 450 P.3d 700 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2019); 2019 Ariz. App. LEXIS 875. 


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Related legal case

Arizona DOC v. Butler