Mar 5


Lawsuit accuses Erie County Sheriff of stonewalling

The Partnership for the Public Good is suing for public records the sheriff's office has refused to release. The failure to follow the FOI Law is part of a pattern.

Erie County Sheriff John C. Garcia. Photo by Garrett Looker.

The Erie County Sheriff’s Office is being sued for jail records. Again.

The Partnership for the Public Good, which asked for records last May, filed suit in December after its request for documents for the downtown holding center and Alden lockup was refused.

It’s the third time since 2018 that the sheriff’s office has been sued over jail records. In the two previous cases, courts ordered the sheriff’s office to provide requested documents. 

“They don’t give up stuff they should give up,” said Nan Haynes, who sued the sheriff in 2018 to get records for the Buffalo chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. 

“If they have something they don’t want to give up, you have to sue.”

The Erie County Holding Center. Photo by Garrett Looker.

Sheriff John Garcia declined an interview request.

“You win some, you lose some,” Garcia said at a Monday press conference when asked about lawsuits over jail records. Garcia, elected in 2021, said he couldn’t think of a records lawsuit that the office had won. On his way out of the press conference, the sheriff declined to answer questions about Partnership for the Public Good’s lawsuit.

“They sue over everything,” Garcia said.

Online state and federal court dockets show the pending case against the sheriff is the only lawsuit the Partnership for the Public Good has filed since its founding in 2007.

In the lawsuit, the Partnership asked for records under the state Freedom of Information Law showing inmate demographics, including ages, gender and race, as well as lengths of stay and how many prisoners are confined in general population, medical units, mental health units and protective custody units. The Partnership also requested policies and procedures regarding mentally ill inmates, inmates with substance abuse issues, and programs that use medication to curb illicit drug addiction.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of Partnership for the Public Good. Photo by I’Jaz Ja’ciel.

The group wants records to determine jail conditions and help assess the need for a new jail that Garcia has said could cost as much as $200 million, said Ó Súilleabháin, the Partnership’s executive director, and Michael Higgins, an attorney with the Civil Liberties & Transparency Clinic at the University at Buffalo’s law school, which is representing the Partnership.

“This is all about what’s going on in our local jails,” Higgins said.

After being sued, the sheriff’s office promised to turn over records, Higgins said.

“Their explanation has been, basically, to pull the data that we’ve asked for, it crashes their system,” Higgins said. “They’re working on that. We have not received any documents to date.”

The Partnership sued after the sheriff’s office ignored an appeal following a denial of the initial records request, a Partnership attorney said in court papers.

The sheriff’s office also didn’t respond to an appeal before the National Lawyers Guild filed suit in 2018. The Guild’s appeal went to the wrong person and ended up in a spam file, according to attorneys for the county who blamed the requester for problems.

“It is a shame Petitioner did not make another phone call to confirm receipt of the email as that one phone call would have cleared up the confusion,” Jeremy Toth and Michael Siragusa, lawyers for the county, wrote in a court brief answering the Guild’s lawsuit.

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The sheriff then fought disclosure.

Releasing policies and procedures on suicides and attempted suicides, and incident reports documenting specific events, would pose a threat to safety and security while violating inmate privacy, the sheriff’s office claimed. Providing emails would consume time, argued Toth and Siragusa, who questioned whether the request was “a valid area of public concern” or an “offensive use of the Freedom of Information Law to bog down already strained government resources.”

Erie County Supreme Court Judge Mark A. Montour ordered then-Sheriff Tim Howard to turn over almost all of the requested records, with names and identifying information about inmates redacted.

The Guild was awarded more than $27,000 in attorneys fees after a judge found that the sheriff had violated the law by refusing to release records on jail suicides and suicide attempts. 

The sheriff’s office lost again last year when The Buffalo News sued after being denied video of a guard apparently kicking an inmate at the Alden jail. Lawyers for the sheriff’s office wrote in court pleadings that the sheriff would have given the video to the inmate, but releasing it to the press would violate his privacy.

Erie County Supreme Court Judge Catherine Nugent Panepinto ruled that the county had no basis for withholding footage, which might generate sympathy for the inmate, and that the public’s right to know outweighed any privacy concerns. The judge also ruled that the newspaper was entitled to attorneys fees.

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“Respondents made an admirable effort showing concern for the inmate their employee allegedly kicked in the head almost a year ago,” Panepinto wrote. “They state the recordings, if posted on the internet, would be degrading and humiliating to the inmate. Apparently, said concern did not extend to determining the current location, health and wellness of the inmate, nor his opinion on the (records) request.”

Karim Abdulla, an attorney with Finnerty Osterreicher & Abdulla, which represented The News, said the newspaper hasn’t submitted a request for fees allowed by the judge.

Erie County also lost a 2010 lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which sued the county after being refused financial records showing how much public money had been spent responding to investigations of the sheriff’s jails by the state and the U.S. Department of Justice. The judge awarded more than $9,000 in attorneys fees.

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