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Higgs v. United States Park Police

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 13, 2019

Dustin John Higgs, Plaintiff-Appellee/Cross-Appellant,
v.
United States Park Police, Defendant-Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

          Argued April 3, 2019

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Terre Haute Division. No. 2:16-cv-96-JMS-MJD - Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Bauer and Rovner, Circuit Judges.

          WOOD, CHIEF JUDGE.

         More than two decades ago, Dustin Higgs kidnapped and murdered three women. Because the murders took place in the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, a federal property in Maryland, he was tried in federal court for these crimes. He was convicted and sentenced to death. See United States v. Higgs, 353 F.3d 281 (4th Cir. 2003). Higgs, now housed on the federal death row within the U.S. Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana, has insisted for years that the government failed to turn over certain exculpatory evidence to which he is entitled under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). Along the way, in 2012, an investigator from the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the U.S. Park Police, seeking a complete copy of everything pertaining to the homicide convictions. The Park Police produced some information and then referred the request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (among other agencies).

         This case arises out of that FOIA request. Dissatisfied with the government's response, Higgs filed a complaint in the Southern District of Indiana, where USP Terre Haute is located, seeking information that the FBI had refused to turn over. Some aspects of Higgs's demands have since been resolved, but he primarily has contended in his lawsuit that the FBI's decisions to redact or withhold information under FOIA Exemptions 6, 7(C), and 7(D), 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6), (b)(7)(C), and (b)(7)(D), were not warranted. Exemptions (6) and 7(C) cover materials that would invade personal privacy, while Exemption 7(D) covers information that "could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source, ... and, in the case of a record or information compiled by criminal law enforcement authority in the course of a criminal investigation ... information furnished by a confidential source ... ."

         Upon the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court split the difference. It concluded that the FBI had properly withheld certain documents under Exemption 7(D), but that the FBI did not justify the invocation of Exemption 7(C). The court accordingly held that the FBI had to release all of the personal information at issue, including names of still-living people, contact information, reports of interviews, fingerprints, and rap sheets for third parties. It gave little weight to the privacy interests of the people concerned, in part because the murders took place 22 years earlier and in part because it thought that the FBI had not met its burden of proof on that point. That failure of proof meant, the court decided, that Higgs was entitled to the documents.

         The government has appealed from the district court's judgment insofar as it ordered disclosure under Exemptions 6 and 7(C); Higgs has cross-appealed from the court's refusal to order disclosure of the materials under Exemption 7(D). We conclude that the district court erred when it found that the public interest prevailed over the privacy interests of the persons involved, and thus it should have refused disclosure of those documents pursuant to Exemptions 6 and 7(C). With respect to Exemption 7(D) materials, we agree with the district court's result (though not necessarily all of its reasoning) and affirm. The net effect is that this case is over: the government is not obliged to turn over any of these additional materials under FOIA.

         I

         We do not need to examine the details of the murders; interested readers can find them in the Fourth Circuit's opinion on direct appeal, at 353 F.3d 281. It is enough to say that Higgs and the three female victims had been at Higgs's apartment, and Higgs had an argument with one of them. The three women walked out, but Higgs did not let matters rest. He grabbed a handgun and convinced two of his friends, Willis Haynes and Victor Gloria, to come with him. They quickly caught up with the women and ordered them into a car, which the men drove to the Patuxent Refuge. There Higgs gave Haynes the gun and ordered him to shoot all three women. Haynes complied. The men left the bodies where they fell and tossed the gun into a river. A motorist found the bodies a few hours later and reported the murders to the Park Police. On the scene, the police found a reference to Higgs in one of the women's day planners. The investigation dragged on for three years, but ultimately Haynes and Higgs were indicted by a federal grand jury for the Patuxent murders. Their cases were severed for trial.

         Both were convicted, but Haynes (the trigger man) was sentenced to life in prison, while Higgs was sentenced to death. Higgs's conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal, 353 F.3d 281. He also failed in several other endeavors to secure relief: a motion for new trial, 95 Fed.Appx. 37 (4th Cir. Apr. 20, 2004); a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, 711 F.Supp.2d 479 (D. Md. 2010), aff'd 663 F.3d 726 (4th Cir. 2011); and a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) to reopen the judgment denying his motion under section 2255, 193 F.Supp.3d 495 (D. Md. 2016), certificate of appealability denied, 2016 WL 6879939 (D. Md. Nov. 22, 2016), 4th Cir. No. 16-15 (Feb. 23, 2017), cert, denied, 138 S.Ct. 2572 (2018).

         While those proceedings were underway, an investigator for the Federal Defender who was representing Higgs sent a FOIA request to the Park Police, asking for a "complete copy of everything pertaining to" the Patuxent murders. In so doing, counsel was following up on one of the Brady claims that Higgs has been attempting to pursue. See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). Higgs is convinced that the government suppressed information that would have impeached Gloria, one of its key witnesses-namely, evidence that he believes would show that the federal prosecutors in his case persuaded Maryland state prosecutors to drop charges against Gloria for an unrelated killing in exchange for Gloria's testimony incriminating Higgs. This contention has been thoroughly explored by the Maryland district court. That court found that Higgs's theory was "pure speculation" and that, in any event, the jury already knew so much about Gloria's criminal history and self-interest that the supposedly suppressed evidence would have been immaterial and cumulative even if it existed. See 193 F.Supp.3d at 505-06.

         But the FOIA proceeding continued to move along notwithstanding the fact that it paralleled Higgs's other efforts. After some back-and-forth about the cost of responding to the request, counsel paid the amount due and waited. On November 7, 2013, the Park Police responded that it would not release any documents. It invoked the three exemptions under FOIA mentioned earlier: Exemptions 6 and 7(C), which relate to personal privacy, and Exemption 7(D), which relates to law-enforcement confidentiality. Counsel appealed, to no avail, and so on March 16, 2016, Higgs filed the present suit. Two months later, the Park Police informed Higgs that it had located nine boxes of responsive documents. It had referred those documents to other federal agencies and, based on their advice, it concluded that it might be able to release 330 pages and possibly more.

         Matters reached a stalemate when, on August 16, 2016, Higgs was told that the FBI (which held most of the records) had asserted a "blanket" exemption to production. That was a bit of an overstatement, since the FBI did produce a few more documents on July 31, 2017. Shortly thereafter, the FBI furnished two declarations from FBI official ...


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