Corrections Officers Have No One To Sue When Home Addresses Mistakenly Released To Inmates

Kevin Nation, Klinton Hust, and Angela Grigsby were employed as corrections officers at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution. On May 3, 2002, the three corrections officers were assaulted by an inmate named David Persons, who threw an unidentified liquid substance from his cell, hitting the officers’ bodies and faces.

Following the incident, the three officers completed workers’ compensation forms. The information provided on these forms included the officers’ home addresses and telephone numbers, marital status, birth dates, and Social Security numbers.

The Department conducted an internal investigation into the assault, and determined the matter should be turned over to the Ada County Sheriff’s Office for further criminal investigation. During the internal investigation, the workers’ compensation forms were gathered and then forwarded in a package of materials to the Sheriff’s Office. The Department did not redact the three officers’ personal information when it forwarded the workers’ compensation forms.

In turn, the Sheriff’s Office referred the materials to the Ada County Prosecutor, who filed criminal charges against Persons. During the criminal proceedings, the prosecutor disclosed to the public defender representing Persons the unredacted workers’ compensation forms. The public defender gave the forms to his client, who in turn provided the personal information in the forms to other inmates.

The three corrections officers sued both the prosecutor and the Department, alleging that their privacy rights were breached by the release of personal information.

The Idaho Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit. With respect to the prosecutor, the Court found that the prosecutor’s actions were protected by “prosecutorial immunity.” As the Court explained it, absolute immunity of prosecutors from lawsuits is necessary because “unfounded litigation could cause a deflection of the prosecutor’s energies from his public duties, and the possibility that he would shade his decisions instead of exercising the independence of judgment required by his public trust.”

The Court found that the release by the prosecutor of the records to the public defender fell within the scope of “activities intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process,” and were thus shielded from lawsuit.

Turning to the officers’ claims against the County, the Court held that the right to privacy was only implicated when there was a “public disclosure.” In the Court’s view, a “public disclosure” does not occur when “only a limited number of persons received the private information and those persons had a right to know the information.”

In the view of the Court, “the parties who received copies of the unredacted workers’ compensation forms were all entitled to the information. Only the inmates who received the private information from Persons were not entitled to the information. The Department and the Idaho Industrial Commission were entitled to collect identifying information because workers’ compensation claims were being filed. In turn, the Sheriff’s Office and the prosecutor were entitled to have identifying information for investigatory and prosecutorial purposes. Likewise, the public defender and Persons were entitled to the unredacted forms in order to authenticate them and defend against any restitution claim.”

While the Court rejected the officers’ lawsuit, it did comment that “disclosing this type of identifying information is not the best practice. Rather, investigatory agencies should redact this type of information, and if it becomes evidence in a prosecution, the attorney should request in camera reviews of the evidence for authentication purposes.”

Nation v. State of Idaho, 2007 WL 942194 (Idaho 2007).

This article appears in the June 2007 issue