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Supreme Court says local jail detainee records subject to FOIA

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The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled the Calhoun County jail must divulge records related to a detention on behalf of the federal immigration agency.

The court said records related to Calhoun County’s three-day detention of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez are not exempt from Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. The sheriff’s office tried to shield the records because Ramos-Gomez was held on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The decision was unanimous.

“A regulation cannot serve as the basis for exempting from disclosure public records,” the opinion said, “because a regulation is not a statute.”

The court said federal rules adopted by an agency don’t preempt Michigan laws, including the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

“If the Legislature wanted a regulation to be a basis for exemption, it would have included language to that effect,” the court ruled. “But it did not, and we interpret the statute as written.”

A spokesperson for the sheriff’s department could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit was filed in 2019 by the American Civil Liberties Union. The Supreme Court overruled two lower courts.

“It’s taken three years [and] a trip to the Michigan Supreme Court, but the court said those records are not exempt,” ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman told Michigan Public Radio. “It's a real victory for public access to information. We cannot hold our government accountable if we do not know what our government is up to.”

Aukerman said the decision should also clear the way for the release of records in another Calhoun County case. The ACLU is also trying to get records related to the jailhouse death last year of Jesse Jerome Dean, another ICE detainee.

“Things that happen behind bars, if we can’t find out about them, that’s a really dangerous place to be,” she said.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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