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Fourth Circuit blasts DEA for delays in responding to public records request

John Coleman has waited five years for records he sought via a Freedom of Information Request submitted to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

And that, said the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today, is long enough. In an opinion by Judge Harvey Wilkinson, the court not only told the agency to get moving but also sent a message, loud and clear, to other agencies taking their time in responding to public records records requests:

We do recognize that agencies face their own challenges in implementing FOIA: the statute and its accompanying regulations are complex; the scope of the exemptions are open to interpretation and dispute; the volume of requests is frequently heavy; and citizens themselves often submit vague requests for voluminous materials. None of this, however, excuses what happened here, namely the agency’s maintenance of complete and utter silence for periods vastly exceeding at every juncture the statute’s requirement of a prompt response. Nowhere in FOIA did Congress contemplate government sitting on its hands for months at a time and doing nothing. The time has come for Coleman to receive resolution of his request of February 29, 2008.

The court sent Coleman’s case back to the district court with orders to “give due weight to the cumulative delays that have transpired in this case and to the importance of transparency in government.”

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