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Judge OKs FBI Search for Socialist’s Records

WASHINGTON (CN) - The FBI did its due diligence in a search for records about a dead socialist writer, a federal judge ruled.

Austin Nolen filed a Freedom of Information Act request last year for records relating to Martin Droll, a socialist writer and organizer who killed himself in May 2014, according to court records.

Nolen claimed that Droll himself filed a FOIA request with the Federal Bureau of Investigation a month before he died, asking for agency records about himself.

Droll allegedly received a response from the FBI the same day that he died, but it is unclear what the response said.

The FBI told Nolen in June 2014 that it couldn't find any records responsive to his request, court records show. He appealed but the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Information Policy affirmed the FBI's determination that no relevant records could be found.

Nolen sued in September 2014, challenging the adequacy of the FBI's search. The FBI tried again to locate records about Droll after Nolen sued, using cross-reference searches and Droll's alias "Marty Rifles," but the agency still did not find responsive documents, according to court records.

The Justice Department moved for summary judgment in January, arguing that the FBI's search of multiple databases was adequate. Nolen filed a cross-motion for summary judgment in March, claiming the FBI didn't do enough.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta ruled in the government's favor Thursday, finding that the FBI didn't need to conduct a search for Droll's associates or organizations that he may have been a part of.

"Plaintiff failed to ask for - or even include mention of - information regarding these organizations in his FOIA request," Mehta wrote. "Even though the FBI searched for Droll's alias, 'Marty Rifles,' which was identified for the first time in the complaint, this additional search that the FBI voluntarily undertook does not compel the FBI, without more, to run searches as to every new piece of information contained in the complaint." (Emphasis in original.)

The D.C. District Court judge also ruled that the agency didn't need to search an electronic case file, or ECF, index.

"The fact that the subject's name is uncommon or that the search in question - according to plaintiff - would not be burdensome does not answer the controlling question, which is whether the ECF is reasonably likely to contain responsive documents," he wrote. "Plaintiff here has offered nothing other than speculation than an ECF text search might turn up records."

In addition, Nolen's argument that the FBI should have contacted individual field offices as part of its search is flawed because he didn't specify any field office to be searched in his FOIA request, Mehta ruled.

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