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Caplan v. Bureau of Alcohol

decided: October 31, 1978.


Appeal from an order of the Southern District of New York, Hon. Whitman Knapp, Judge, denying plaintiff's request for disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, of portions of the manual "Raids and Searches," published by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for use by its agents. Affirmed.

Before Waterman, Friendly and Mulligan, Circuit Judges.

Author: Mulligan

David I. Caplan, the Pro se plaintiff-appellant, is an attorney who is in the process of writing a book on the constitutional implications of firearms control laws. On July 3, 1977 he initiated a request under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (the Act), for the disclosure by the defendant-appellee, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (BATF), of its pamphlet "Raids and Searches." BATF denied the request but informed Caplan of his right to an administrative appeal. On that appeal BATF forwarded to Caplan a partial copy of the pamphlet, deleting certain material which in its opinion was within 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(2),*fn1 which exempts from disclosure matters that are "related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency." Caplan thereupon filed a complaint on August 31, 1977 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeking to enjoin BATF from withholding the deleted portions of the pamphlet and seeking production of the "whole of the said record . . . or such parts as the court deems proper." The agency submitted the unexpurgated pamphlet to the court for In camera inspection. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). Both parties moved for summary judgment. On January 17, 1978 the Hon. Whitman Knapp, district judge, filed a memorandum and order, ordering the further disclosure of some of the withheld material but not the whole of the pamphlet and signed an order to that effect on February 9, 1978.*fn2 This appeal by Caplan followed. BATF has not appealed that part of the order which directed the disclosure of certain additional material from the pamphlet and that information has been forwarded to Caplan.


Judge Knapp found that the withheld portions of the pamphlet in issue included descriptions of the equipment used by agents in making raids, the methods of gaining entry to buildings used by law breakers, factors relating to the timing of raids, and the techniques used by suspects to conceal contraband. 445 F. Supp. at 701. He further found that the release of such parts of the pamphlet would hinder investigations, enable violators to avoid detection and jeopardize the safety of Government agents. Id. Our own examination of the manual, which is a sealed exhibit in the record on appeal, confirms this view. Judge Knapp noted that the plaintiff had not cited, nor had the district court found (nor have we), any cases where the release of a law enforcement manual had been ordered where the effect of disclosure would be to impede law enforcement or endanger Government investigators. Id. Indeed, it seems clearly incongruous to believe that the Congress would provide for the release of material which would facilitate law evasion and undermine enforcement of the law. The difficulty we find, however, with the opinion below is that the district judge found that the manual in issue fell within none of the statutory exceptions to disclosure set forth in the Act.*fn3 Rather, he based his decision to deny disclosure on the exercise of the court's general equitable discretion. Id. at 705-06. In so holding he relied upon Judge Feinberg's opinion in Rose v. Department of Air Force, 495 F.2d 261, 269 (2d Cir. 1974), aff'd, 425 U.S. 352, 96 S. Ct. 1592, 48 L. Ed. 2d 11 (1976). In that case we suggested that while an apparent split of authority exists as to the general equity power of a court to refuse disclosure under the Act, a truly exceptional case might require such an exercise of judicial discretion. Id. The district court found this to be such an "exceptional" case because disclosure of the withheld material could enable violators to escape detection and to endanger Government agents. Hence, the "public interest . . . warrant(ed) an exercise of discretion to decline enforcement with respect to such sections." 445 F. Supp. at 706.*fn4

Plaintiff argues that the equitable discretion doctrine cannot apply to material which proposes unconstitutional methods of investigation, as, in light of a comment by the district judge discussed in Part III of this opinion, he suspects the manual does. We find it unnecessary to consider this because we hold that the disclosure here sought is within the (b)(2) exemption of the Act since the material not revealed related "solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(2).

Indeed, on its face the language of subsection (b)(2) would seem to make clear the applicability of that provision to the portions of the manual here in question were it not for the differing interpretations of the (b)(2) exemption by the reports of the two Houses of Congress. The Senate Report gives as examples of (b)(2) material "rules as to personnel's use of parking facilities or regulation of lunch hours, statements of policy as to sick leave, and the like." S.Rep.No. 813, 89th Cong., 1st Sess. 8 (1965) (Senate Report). The House Report, on the other hand, lists as examples of such exempt internal reports: "operating rules, guidelines, and manuals of procedure for Government investigators or examiners." H.R.Rep.No. 1497, 89th Cong., 2d Sess. 10 (1966), U.S.Code Cong. & Admin. News 1966, p. 2427 (hereinafter House Report). The House Report further states that the (b)(2) exemption does Not "cover all "matters of internal management' such as employee relations and working conditions and routine administrative procedures which are withheld under the present law." Id.

As Judge Feinberg noted in Rose, supra, at 264, "in some instances, the scope of the exemption may be open to considerable doubt since the Senate and House Reports diametrically clash." (Emphasis supplied). Thus, internal rules concerning Government employee parking facilities and lunch hours would be exempt from disclosure if the Senate Report is followed but not if the House Report interpretation is adopted. Conversely, under the House Report the coverage of (b)(2) would include the manual here in issue while the Senate Report would not extend (b)(2) to encompass such material. In Rose this court did not have to make any choice between the House and Senate Reports since the materials sought to be obtained (case summaries of Honor and Ethics Code adjudications kept in the files of the United States Air Force Academy) were held to be matters of general public interest, not solely matters of internal management within the meaning of the Senate Report. 495 F.2d at 265. Nor were they within the House exemption which, we noted, permits "disclosure of "matters of internal management,' except where knowledge of administrative procedures might help outsiders to circumvent regulations or standards." Id. Release of the summaries, which constituted quasi-legal records, was held to pose "no such danger to the effective operation of the Codes at the Academy." Id.

While this court observed in Rose that the Senate Report was thought by many to comply more closely with the statutory language of the Act than the House Report, we also stated that this court had not taken a firm stand on the issue. Id. In the instant case the district court has taken such a stand, holding that the Senate Report is to be followed in interpreting the (b)(2) exemption and that consequently, the exemption is confined to materials which relate to "conditions of employment" such as lunch hours, sick leave, parking privileges and the like. 445 F. Supp. at 702. We disagree.

In affirming our decision in Rose, the Supreme Court expressed a general preference for the Senate Report as a guide to construction of the (b)(2) exemption. However, the Court was careful to qualify this preference: "at least Where the situation is not one where disclosure may risk circumvention of agency regulation, Exemption 2 is not applicable to matters subject to such a genuine and significant public interest." 425 U.S. at 369, 96 S. Ct. at 1603. But the finding below, with which we agree, was that the instant case is one where disclosure may risk circumvention of agency regulation. Thus, in the case at hand we are faced with circumstances in which we are free to give weight to the House Report. While scholars such as Caplan or the merely curious may have an interest in the investigative techniques and procedures employed by Government agents, it would appear obvious that those immediately and practically concerned with such matters would be individuals embarked upon clandestine and illicit operations, the detection of which would be frustrated if they were privy to the methods employed by the BATF to ferret them out. We believe, in sum, that the interpretation of (b)(2) by the Supreme Court in Rose, not only does not preclude but furnishes support for holding that this exemption prevents the forced disclosure of the information in the BATF manual which is here sought.*fn5 It would be anomalous indeed to attribute to Congress the intention to require agency revelation of internal law enforcement manuals. Such a step would increase the risk of physical harm to those engaged in law enforcement and significantly assist those engaged in criminal activity by acquainting them with the intimate details of the strategies employed in its detection. Every court faced with the issue has determined that information having the potential for either such result is not to be distributed under the Act.*fn6


Our determination that the (b)(2) exemption is applicable in this case and is not foreclosed by the Senate Report is fortified by another section of the Act which is also discussed in that Report. Section (a) of the Act, the disclosure section requires, Inter alia, that certain records and reports must be made available to the public for inspection and copying. Section (a)(2)(C) provides that among such records are "administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect a member of the public . . . ." The Senate Report makes clear that the word "administrative" was added to the Bill for the following purpose:

The limitation of the staff manuals and instructions affecting the public which must be made available to the public to those which pertain to administrative matters Rather than to law enforcement matters protects the traditional confidential nature of instructions to Government personnel prosecuting violations of law in ...

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