Wednesday, 09 December 2015 09:04
Virginia Department of Corrections’ documents related to prisoner executions have been held not subject to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, as the release of the requested documents could jeopardize the safety of a government facility.
An individual requested the Virginia Department of Corrections to produce specific documents pertaining to the Department’s execution plans, including a detailed floor plan of the execution chamber; diagram of the wiring and control panel for the electric chair and execution manuals. The Department of Corrections objected on the basis that security could be affected if the documents were disclosed. The Department of Corrections was concerned about threats and the safety of its staff and inmates, especially on the days leading up to an execution and the day of an execution.
The safety concerns were well identified. Specifically, if the floor plan of the execution chamber was released, the public would be privy to information such as the potential areas of weakness and the layout of the wiring to the electric chair. With regard to the electrical schematic and manufacturer manuals, an individual could use that information to plan an attack on the system and facility in order to stop the execution. In addition, specific times for events are set forth in the execution manuals.
The lower court determined part of the manufacturer’s manual should be disclosed to the extent the manual details what happens the moment the inmate arrives at a certain point in the building. Therefore, a partially redacted manufacturer manual was ordered to be disclosed. The Department of Corrections appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act
The primary purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is to facilitate the openness in the administration of government. The provisions shall be liberally construed to afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government. However, some records are excluded, specifically including engineering and architectural drawings, operational and procedural manuals and records which would reveal security information or operational protocols. In order for certain documents not to be disclosed, the proponent against disclosure must establish that disclosure would jeopardize the security of a government facility.
The state supreme court determined the Department of Corrections demonstrated that the disclosure of the requested documents could jeopardize the security of the inmates, staff and public visitors attending an execution. As a result, the court determined that the Department of Corrections met its burden and the documents, if released, would jeopardize the security of multiple individuals. As a result, the request was denied and the lower court’s decision overturned.