April 23, 2002
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter in which you asked about the availability of "'Police Department Guidelines' with regards to precinct Supervisory staff giving uniformed police officers authority/direction to 'strip search' individuals who had been arrested for non-felony offenses." You also questioned the propriety of a response from the New York City Police Department indicating that the Department would respond to your request within 120 days.
In this regard, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied..."
While an agency must grant access to records, deny access or acknowledge the receipt of a request within five business days, when such acknowledgement is given, there is no precise time period within which an agency must grant or deny access to records. The time needed to do so may be dependent upon the volume of a request, the possibility that other requests have been made, the necessity to conduct legal research, the search and retrieval techniques used to locate the records and the like. In short, when an agency acknowledges the receipt of a request because more than five business days may be needed to grant or deny a request, so long as it provides an approximate date indicating when the request will be granted or denied, and that date is reasonable in view of the attendant circumstances, I believe that the agency would be acting in compliance with law.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, in my view, every law must be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent, and I point out that in its statement of legislative intent, §84 of the Freedom of Information Law states that "it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible." Therefore, if records are clearly available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law, or if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a lengthy delay in disclosure. As the Court of Appeals has asserted:
"...the successful implementation of the policies motivating the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as broad as the achievement of a more informed electorate and a more responsible and responsive officialdom. By their very nature such objectives cannot hope to be attained unless the measures taken to bring them about permeate the body politic to a point where they become the rule rather than the exception. The phrase 'public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' therefore merely punctuates with explicitness what in any event is implicit" [Westchester News v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 579 (1980)].
Further, in my opinion, if, as a matter of practice or policy, an agency acknowledges the receipt of requests and indicates in every instance that it will determine to grant or deny access to records "within 120 days" or some other particular period, following the date of acknowledgement, such a practice or policy would be contrary to the thrust of the Freedom of Information Law.
Regarding the availability of certain "police department guidelines", as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law.
It is noted that §87(2)(g) permits an agency provide in pertinent part that:
"are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not:
i. statistical or factual tabulations or data;
ii. instructions to staff that affect the public;
iii. final agency policy or determinations; or
iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government..."
It is noted that the language quoted above contains what in effect is a double negative. While inter- agency or intra-agency materials may be withheld, portions of such materials consisting of statistical or factual information, instructions to staff that affect the public, final agency policy or determinations or external audits must be made available, unless a different ground for denial could appropriately be asserted. Concurrently, those portions of inter-agency or intra-agency materials that are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like could in my view be withheld.
Concerning "instructions to staff that affect the public" and "final agency policy or determinations", which are generally available, respectively, under subparagraphs (ii) and (iii) of §87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law, there is little decisional law that deals directly with those provisions. However, in a letter of July 21, 1977 prepared by the sponsor of the revised Freedom of Information Law, former Assemblyman Mark Siegel indicated that §87(2)(g) is intended to insure that "any so-called 'secret law' of an agency be made available", such as the policy "upon which an agency relies" in carrying out its duties. Typically, agency guidelines, procedures, staff manuals and the like provide direction to an agency's employees regarding the means by which they perform their duties. Some may be "internal", in that they deal solely with the relationship between an agency and its staff. Others may provide direction in terms of the manner in which staff performs its duties in relation to or that affects the public, which would ordinarily be public. To be distinguished would be advice, opinions or recommendations that may be accepted or rejected. An instruction to staff, a policy or a determination each would represent a matter that is mandatory or which represents a final step in the decision making process.
While instructions to staff that affect the public and final agency policies or determinations are generally accessible, there may be instances in which those records or portions thereof may be withheld.
Perhaps most relevant would be §87(2)(e)(iv). The leading decision concerning that provision is Fink v. Lefkowitz, which involved access to a manual prepared by a special prosecutor that investigated nursing homes in which the Court of Appeals held that:
"The purpose of this exemption is obvious. Effective law enforcement demands that violators of the law not be apprised the nonroutine procedures by which an agency obtains its information (see Frankel v. Securities & Exch. Comm., 460 F2d 813, 817, cert den 409 US 889). However beneficial its thrust, the purpose of the Freedom of Information Law is not to enable persons to use agency records to frustrate pending or threatened investigations nor to use that information to construct a defense to impede a prosecution.
"To be distinguished from agency records compiled for law enforcement purposes which illustrate investigative techniques, are those which articulate the agency's understanding of the rules and regulations it is empowered to enforce. Records drafted by the body charged with enforcement of a statute which merely clarify procedural or substantive law must be disclosed. Such information in the hands of the public does not impede effective law enforcement. On the contrary, such knowledge actually encourages voluntary compliance with the law by detailing the standards with which a person is expected to comply, thus allowing him to conform his conduct to those requirements (see Stokes v. Brennan, 476 F2d 699, 702; Hawkes v. Internal Revenue Serv., 467 F2d 787, 794-795; Davis, Administrative Law [1970 Supp], section 3A, p 114).
"Indicative, but not necessarily dispositive of whether investigative techniques are nonroutine is whether disclosure of those procedures would give rise to a substantial likelihood that violators could evade detection by deliberately tailoring their conduct in anticipation of avenues of inquiry to be pursued by agency personnel (see Cox v. United States Dept. of Justice, 576 F2d 1302, 1307-1308; City of Concord v. Ambrose, 333 F Supp 958)."
In applying those criteria to specific portions of the manual, which was compiled for law enforcement purposes, the Court found that:
"Chapter V of the Special Prosecutor's Manual provides a graphic illustration of the confidential techniques used in a successful nursing home prosecution. None of those procedures are 'routine' in the sense of fingerprinting or ballistic tests (see Senate Report No. 93-1200, 93 Cong 2d Sess ). Rather, they constitute detailed, specialized methods of conducting an investigation into the activities of a specialized industry in which voluntary compliance with the law has been less then exemplary.
"Disclosure of the techniques enumerated in those pages would enable an operator to tailor his activities in such a way as to significantly diminish the likelihood of a successful prosecution. The information detailed on pages 481 and 482 of the manual, on the other hand, is merely a recitation of the obvious: that auditors should pay particular attention to requests by nursing homes for Medicaid reimbursement rate increases based upon projected increase in cost. As this is simply a routine technique that would be used in any audit, there is no reason why these pages should not be disclosed" (id. at 573).
As the Court of Appeals has suggested, to the extent that the records in question include descriptions of investigative techniques which if disclosed would enable potential lawbreakers to evade detection or endanger the lives or safety of law enforcement personnel or others [see also, Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(f)], a denial of access would be appropriate. I would conjecture, however, that not all of the investigative techniques or procedures contained in the records sought incident and the ensuing investigation could be characterized as "non-routine", and that it is unlikely that disclosure of each aspect of the records would result in the harmful effects of disclosure described above.
The other provision that may be pertinent as a basis for denial is §87(2)(f). Again, that provision permits an agency to withhold records insofar as disclosure "would endanger the life or safety of any person." If, for example, disclosure of an instruction to staff or policy would jeopardize the lives or safety of public employees or others, the cited provision might be applicable.
I hope that I have been of assistance.