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Fitzgerald v. Loudoun County Sheriff's office

Supreme Court of Virginia

April 16, 2015

BENJAMIN B. FITZGERALD
v.
LOUDOUN COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE

FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF LOUDOUN COUNTY. J. Howe Brown, Judge.

Affirmed.

Benjamin B. Fitzgerald (Jeanine M. Irving; Sevila, Saunders, Huddleston & White, on briefs), for appellant.

Courtney R. Sydnor, Deputy County Attorney (Leo P. Rogers, County Attorney; Milissa R. Spring, Deputy County Attorney, on brief), for appellee.

Page 859

PRESENT: All the Justices

OPINION

D. ARTHUR KELSEY, JUSTICE

On appeal, Benjamin B. Fitzgerald contends that the circuit court erred in denying his request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (" FOIA" ), Code § 2.2-3700 et seq., to obtain a copy of a suicide note contained in a criminal investigative file maintained by the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office. Finding no such error, we affirm.

I.

In October 2007, a neighbor found Charles D. Riechers, a senior United States Air Force official, dead at his Loudoun County home. Riechers was sitting in his vehicle in a closed garage. A key was in the ignition, in the " on" position, but the vehicle was not running. A hose appeared to connect the vehicle's exhaust pipe to a rear passenger window.

Firefighters from the Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Department and deputies from the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office responded to the neighbor's 911 call. The deputies immediately secured the area with a yellow crime scene tape and started a crime scene access log to record their observations, summarize their interviews with witnesses, and inventory their collection of physical evidence. They also conducted a security sweep of the home. The deputies then turned the incident over to the Criminal Investigations Division of the Sheriff's Office.

A crime scene investigator managed the initial investigation and ordered that the decedent be taken to the morgue for an autopsy. A detective in the Sheriff's Criminal Investigations Division coordinated the search of the residence after obtaining consent from the decedent's wife. In the home, investigators discovered various evidentiary clues suggesting that suicide, rather than homicide, could be the cause of death. Among the items of evidence collected was what appeared to be a suicide note addressed to the decedent's supervisor at the Pentagon.

The detective continued to investigate evidentiary leads and coordinated his investigation with the United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations. The detective also reviewed the coroner's autopsy report, which concluded that the decedent did not die from any apparent bodily trauma. After receiving the medical examiner's report, the detective filed his final report concluding: " This case is now closed, no further investigation is required at this time." The case file was placed among the closed cases of the Criminal Investigations Division.

In February 2014, Fitzgerald sent a FOIA request to the Sheriff's Office seeking all documents related to the " non-criminal incident report into the suicide of Charles D. Riechers" in October 2007. The Custodian of Records for the Sheriff's Office responded by noting that the records sought were considered to be part of a criminal investigative file. The custodian referred Fitzgerald to Code § 2.2-3706(A)(2)(a) and noted that the Sheriff's Office would not release the file absent a court order.

Page 860

The Sheriff's Office later provided to Fitzgerald various documents from the criminal investigative file, but withheld the suicide note written by the decedent to his supervisor at the Pentagon. Fitzgerald filed a petition in general district court seeking a mandamus order requiring the production of the withheld suicide note. The ...


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