MAGER v. DEPARTMENT OF STATE POLICE Docket No. 111589.
595 N.W.2d 142 (1999)
460 Mich. 134
Fred MAGER, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. State of Michigan, DEPARTMENT OF STATE POLICE and John L. McCarthy, Defendants-Appellants.
Supreme Court of Michigan.
June 22, 1999.
Daniel Bambery, DeWitt, for plaintiff.
Frank J. Kelley, Attorney General, Thomas L. Casey, Solicitor General, and Thomas Quasarano, Assistant Attorney General, Lansing, for defendants-appellants.
Plaintiff requested that the State Police provide the names and addresses of persons who own registered handguns. The State Police denied the request on the ground that plaintiff was seeking private information that could be withheld under an exemption found in the Freedom of Information Act. When plaintiff sued, the circuit court granted summary disposition in favor of the State Police. The Court of Appeals reversed, but we reinstate the judgment of the circuit court.
As indicated, this case arises under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.
Plaintiff assertedly has a legitimate political interest in the information—he is said to advocate a change in Michigan law regarding the carrying of firearms, and he wants to recruit other gun owners to his cause.
In February 1996, plaintiff made his request to the State Police:
The State Police denied the request in early March 1996. In doing so, the department cited the privacy exemption found in M.C.L. § 15.243(1)(a); MSA 4.1801(13)(1)(a).
A revised request from plaintiff in May 1996 was denied by the State Police several days after it was received.
In June 1996, plaintiff filed this FOIA action in circuit court. He also moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10).
In August 1996, the circuit court denied plaintiff's motion for summary disposition, but granted summary disposition in favor of the State Police. The court ruled that the requested names and addresses are "information of a personal nature," and that disclosure in these circumstances would constitute "a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy."
On appeal, plaintiff persuaded the Court of Appeals to reverse the grant of summary disposition to the State Police.
The Department of State Police has applied to this Court for leave to appeal.
The privacy exemption of the FOIA has provided this Court with a number of challenging cases involving persons who sought lists of names and addresses.
The plaintiff in Kestenbaum v. Michigan State Univ., 414 Mich. 510, 327 N.W.2d 783 (1982), wanted a copy of the computer tape used to produce the MSU student directory. The case was decided shortly after the death of Justice BLAIR MOODY, JR., and the remaining six justices split three to three with regard to whether disclosure was required.
Tobin v. Civil Service Comm., 416 Mich. 661, 331 N.W.2d 184 (1982), was a "reverse FOIA" case in which an agency was sued by persons who sought to prevent the disclosure of information.
The Evening News Ass'n v. City of Troy, 417 Mich. 481, 339 N.W.2d 421 (1983), concerned a different exemption (relating to law enforcement proceedings). Evening News is generally helpful for its instruction that exemptions in the Michigan FOIA can be understood with reference to parallel exemptions in the federal FOIA.
Home addresses of government employees were again at issue in State Employees Ass'n v. Dep't of Management & Budget, 428 Mich. 104, 404 N.W.2d 606 (1987). Dividing three-one-one-one (with one justice not participating), this Court determined that the privacy exemption did not authorize nondisclosure of the information.
The privacy exemption was examined in a different context in Swickard v. Wayne Co. Medical Examiner, 438 Mich. 536, 475 N.W.2d 304 (1991). The Chief Judge of the 36th District Court apparently had committed suicide, and there were reports that drug paraphernalia were found in the home where the death occurred. A reporter for the Detroit Free Press wanted access to the autopsy report and the toxicology test results. The Wayne County Medical Examiner refused.
The privacy exemption was again considered in Booth Newspapers, Inc. v. Univ. of Mich. Bd. of Regents, 444 Mich. 211, 507 N.W.2d 422 (1993). The plaintiff newspapers sought travel records that would shed light on the process by which the University of Michigan selected a president in 1987 and 1988. Building on Swickard, this Court explained that the privacy exemption has two elements:
This Court concluded that the requested travel records were not information of a "personal nature." 444 Mich. at 231-234, 507 N.W.2d 422. We explained that the exemptions are narrowly construed, 444 Mich. at 232, 507 N.W.2d 422 and, per Swickard, that the sense of the community is applied in determining what is of a personal nature, 444 Mich. at 232-233, 507 N.W.2d 422. In the end, we held that "[t]here exists no custom, mores, or ordinary view of the community that would warrant a finding that the travel expense records of a public body constitute records of a personal nature." 444 Mich. at 233, 507 N.W.2d 422.
Most recently, we decided Bradley v. Saranac Community Schools, Bd. of Ed., 455 Mich. 285, 565 N.W.2d 650 (1997), an opinion resolving two unrelated cases. In one, the father of a public school student sought access to the personnel file of his child's teacher. In the other, a group of parents wanted copies of written performance evaluations for nine principals employed by a school district.
Applying that standard, we determined that the personnel files were not information of a "personal nature":
Holding the first element of the exemption not applicable, we did not reach the question whether disclosure would be a "clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy." 455 Mich. at 295, 565 N.W.2d 650.
Reviewing the decisions outlined above, one can readily observe that disclosure has been the consistent outcome where citizens seek to learn about government employees and their work. In recent years, cases like Booth and Bradley have given access to information regarding the manner in which public employees are fulfilling their public responsibilities. Likewise, Swickard reminds us that "the FOIA is a prodisclosure statute with narrowly construed exemptions," 438 Mich. at 558, 475 N.W.2d 304 under which ordinary public records must remain available.
The case now before us first presents the question whether the fact of gun ownership is "information of a personal nature."
The ownership and use of firearms is a controversial subject, as to which partisans of many stripes hold strong views. Further,
We held in Bradley that "information is of a personal nature if it reveals intimate or embarrassing details of an individual's private life." 455 Mich. at 294, 565 N.W.2d 650. A citizen's decision to purchase and maintain firearms is a personal decision of considerable importance. We have no doubt that gun ownership is an intimate or, for some persons, potentially embarrassing detail of one's personal life.
Gun ownership being "information of a personal nature," we then move to the second step of the inquiry—whether "disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy."
As indicated above, the privacy exemption in the federal FOIA is worded differently than the corresponding state provision.
Referring to earlier decisions,
Applying that analysis to the present case, it is certain that any reasonable balancing would find disclosure to be unwarranted. The Legislature has stated the purpose of the Michigan FOIA
For the reasons stated in this opinion, we hold that gun ownership is information "of a personal nature" and that "disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy." Thus the statutory exemption stated in M.C.L. § 15.243(1)(a); MSA 4.1801(13)(1)(a) is applicable in this case, and the Department of State Police did not violate the law when it refused to provide the gun-registration information requested by plaintiff.
Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstate the judgment of the circuit court. MCR 7.302(F)(1).
WEAVER, C.J., and BRICKLEY, MARILYN J. KELLY, TAYLOR, CORRIGAN, and YOUNG, JJ., concur.
MICHAEL F. CAVANAGH, J., concurs in the result only.
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