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HRDC Sues for Records Denied by Sheriff and Jail in Will County, Illinois

by Jo Ellen Nott

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the nonprofit that publishes Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News, filed suit in Illinois state court on February 7, 2022, accusing the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office (WCSAO) of improperly withholding public records.

HRDC filed its suit three months after making a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, 5 ILCS 140/1 (FOIA), seeking copies of all claims or lawsuits involving the Will County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), the Will County Jail (WCJ) or any of their employees, in which payments totaling $1,000 or more were disbursed from either the Sheriff’s Office or its insurers to resolve claims against it between January 2016 to present.

WCSAO denied the request, calling it “not proper” and “unduly burdensome.” But HRDC has a legitimate purpose in requesting records that show the use of public funds to pay claims alleging misconduct by law enforcement officials. HRDC also used a separate FOIA request to obtain from the county’s Department of Finance the names and case numbers of 81 individuals who made successful claims against WCSO or WCJ and narrowed its request to just those records. HRDC even broke down the 81 claims involved into more manageable groups of 15 or fewer, making a separate records request for each group.

During the month of November 2021, WCSAO asked for five-day extensions to respond to each of the first three requests before it then combined all the requests into one and denied it as being “unduly burdensome”—even though, as HRDC’s complaint noted, the FOIA statute does not permit a responding governmental agency to combine requests.

At the end of November and beginning of December, HRCD made two attempts to comply with WCSAO’s pushback to its request, extending the deadline by 60 days to a total of 90 days. On the next to the last day of December, WCSAO responded that “even with the extension of time” the requests were “unduly burdensome” because it would take more than one hour per file to respond.”

In its suit, HRDC noted that this was a total of 81 hours, or about 10 business days, which was more than amply provided for in HRDC’s offer to extend the deadline by an extra 60 days. By the date the lawsuit was filed, WCSOA had not responded.

The suit alleges violations of FOIA and asks the Court to declare WCSAO has violated the law, as well as compelling it “to search for and produce the requested records and to enjoin WCSAO from withholding non-exempt public records.” HRDC also asked the court “to order WCSAO to pay civil penalties” and award HRDC “reasonable attorney fees and costs” along with “such other relief the Court considers appropriate.” See: Human Rights Def. Ctr. v. Will Cty. State’s Attorney’s Office, Ill. Cir. (12th Cir.), Case No. 2022CH000017.

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Related legal case

Human Rights Def. Ctr. v. Will Cty. State’s Attorney’s Office,