Supreme Court appeal possible in data request case

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, on behalf of the Hennepin County Sheriff, is reviewing a court of appeals decision to determine whether to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court in a data practices act case, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced Monday afternoon.

Tony Webster, a local independent journalist, filed a request for information from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office in 2015 seeking all data, including emails, since 2013 which reference biometric data or mobile biometric technology. He also included about a dozen keywords that might appear in the emails which he thought would likely be used in discussion of biometrics.

Hennepin County and the sheriff’s office responded the request was too broad and would take 15 months of computer time to gather the data, making it overly burdensome. Webster narrowed his request but when the sheriff’s department asked him to shrink it more, he refused and filed an appeal with an Administrative Law Judge.

That judge ruled in his favor and the Hennepin County Attorney’s office, representing the sheriff’s office and the county, appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Monday, that court ruled in favor of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and Hennepin County in two of the three issues.

The court ruled that the judge erred in finding that the Sheriff’s Office and Hennepin County violated the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act by failing to establish procedures to ensure appropriate and prompt compliance with data requests and by failing to keep records containing government data in an arrangement to make them easily accessible for convenient use.

However, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Tony Webster on the third issue, whether his request that millions of emails be searched for emails containing specific words was a proper data practices act request. The court wrote in its opinion that the data practices act does not have an exception for overly burdensome requests.

In rejecting the sheriff’s office and Hennepin County’s arguments, the court noted that “…the nature of government data has evolved and expanded in recent decades. It may be that the time is right for a reassessment of competing rights to data within the context of effective government operation. It may also be that the proposed exception (overly burdensome) reflects sound public policy. But when it comes to public-policy considerations, the task of extending existing law falls to the legislature or the supreme court …”