Aurora, IL – A federal judge has declined to throw out a lawsuit by seven police officers whose personal information was sent to inmates in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
The officers filed suit in July of 2017 after they learned that the city of Aurora’s records manager had sent their addresses, phone numbers, names of family members, Social Security numbers, and other personnel records to convicted felons serving time, WGN-TV reported.
Jesse Alvarez, a gang leader sentenced to 88 years behind bars at Menard Correctional Center for attempted murder, sent a handwritten FOIA request to the city for the personnel records of six police officers who had helped to convict him, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The city, under the supervision of then-records manager Jo Ann Osberg, sent largely unredacted personnel files of the officers to the inmate at the prison in October of 2015.
Alvarez was convicted of shooting and trying to kill a rival gang member, the Chicago Tribune reported.
An audit of the city’s FOIA files in March of 2017 exposed the fact that the city had also sent unredacted personnel records of another officer, now retired, to another felon.
The seven affected officers filed a lawsuit against Osberg and the city of Aurora, claiming that the city’s actions had put them and their families in danger.
The city and the former city records manager filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and argued that Osberg was entitled to qualified immunity because the mistake had been made under the auspices of doing her job.
The city tried to argue that releasing the files only created a “potential” danger for the police officers and their families,
However, District Judge Sara L. Ellis disagreed and said the officers had met their burden of proof for pleading their case under theories including state-created danger, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Ellis said the government can be held liable in circumstances when their actions create a danger, WGN reported. She also said Osberg was not entitled to qualified immunity.
The city argued that releasing officer files only posed a potential danger, but the judge said the danger is "actual."
The judge said it's plausible the city provided a convicted felon information he could use to seek revenge on the officers, according to the Chicago Tribune.
"Defendants perhaps confuse 'danger' with whether the private actor needs to actually commit harm to the plaintiffs for a state-created danger theory to apply," Ellis wrote. "If the government throws an individual into a snake pit, and the individual is not harmed by the snakes, but hurts himself escaping the pit, the government has still placed the individual in danger that has caused the individual harm."
Ellis told both parties to finish up discovery in the case by June 1, set a new status hearing date of May 29, and referred them to a magistrate for a settlement conference prior to the hearing, the Chicago Tribune reported.
However, both parties felt it was unlikely they would be able to come to a settlement agreement.
On Jan. 12, 2017, Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman announced that a five-year audit of the city’s FOIA processes had been completed, and that there were no other officers affected.
But that was before the city had discovered the release of the retired officer’s information to yet another criminal.
"Once again, I am truly sorry that this happened," Chief Ziman wrote. "I don't pretend to know the challenges that you and your families have faced knowing that personal information was released."
Some of the affected officers installed security systems after they found out their personal information had been released. Some of them actually moved to another home in order to ensure their family’s safety, WGN reported.