June 21, 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 and the materials attached to it. The correspondence focuses on a request for records of the City of Auburn relating to an arrest. In brief, the request was denied in great measure due to the pendency of an investigation.
In this regard, first and perhaps most importantly, 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 emphasized that the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the exceptions that follow. In my view, the phrase quoted in the preceding sentence evidences a recognition on the part of the Legislature that a single record or report, for example, might include portions that are available under the statute, as well as portions that might justifiably be withheld. That being so, I believe that it also imposes an obligation on an agency to review records sought, in their entirety, to determine which portions, if any, might properly be withheld or deleted prior to disclosing the remainder.
The state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, expressed its general view of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law in Gould v. New York City Police Department [89 NY2d 267 (1996)], stating that:
"To ensure maximum access to government records, the 'exemptions are to be narrowly construed, with the burden resting on the agency to demonstrate that the requested material indeed qualifies for exemption' (Matter of Hanig v. State of New York Dept. of Motor Vehicles, 79 N.Y.2d 106, 109, 580 N.Y.S.2d 715, 588 N.E.2d 750 see, Public Officers Law § 89[b]). As this Court has stated, '[o]nly where the material requested falls squarely within the ambit of one of these statutory exemptions may disclosure be withheld' (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 N.Y.2d, 567, 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463)" (id., 275).
Just as significant, the Court in Gould repeatedly specified that a categorical denial of access to records is inconsistent with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law. In that case, the Police Department contended that complaint follow up reports could be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they fall within the exception regarding intra-agency materials, §87(2)(g), an exception separate from that to which allusion was made in response to your request. The Court, however, wrote that: "Petitioners contend that because the complaint follow-up reports contain factual data, the exemption does not justify complete nondisclosure of the reports. We agree" (id., 276), and stated as a general principle that "blanket exemptions for particular types of documents are inimical to FOIL's policy of open government" (id., 275). The Court also offered guidance to agencies and lower courts in determining rights of access and referred to several decisions it had previously rendered, stating that:
"...to invoke one of the exemptions of section 87(2), the agency must articulate 'particularized and specific justification' for not disclosing requested documents (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, supra, 47 N.Y.2d, at 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463). If the court is unable to determine whether withheld documents fall entirely within the scope of the asserted exemption, it should conduct an in camera inspection of representative documents and order disclosure of all nonexempt, appropriately redacted material (see, Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 N.Y.2d 131, 133, 490 N.Y.S. 2d, 488, 480 N.E.2d 74; Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., supra, 62 N.Y.2d, at 83, 476 N.Y.S.2d 69, 464 N.E.2d 437)" (id.).
In the context of your request, I am not suggesting that the records in question must necessarily be disclosed in full. Rather, based on the direction given by the Court of Appeals in several decisions, the records must be reviewed for the purpose of identifying those portions of the records that might fall within the scope of one or more of the grounds for denial of access. As the Court stated later in the decision: "Indeed, the Police Department is entitled to withhold complaint follow-up reports, or specific portions thereof, under any other applicable exemption, such as the law-enforcement exemption or the public-safety exemption, as long as the requisite particularized showing is made" (id., 277; emphasis added).
Second, from my perspective, unless an arrest or booking record has been sealed pursuant to §160.50 of the Criminal Procedure Law, it must be disclosed. Under that statute, when criminal charges have been dismissed in favor of an accused, the records relating to the arrest ordinarily are sealed. In those instances, the records would be exempted from disclosure by statute [see Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(a)].
Although arrest records are not specifically mentioned in the current Freedom of Information Law, the original Law granted access to "police blotters and booking records" [see original Law, §88(1)(f)]. In my opinion, even though reference to those records is not made in the current statute, I believe that such records continue to be available, for the present law was clearly intended to broaden rather than restrict rights of access. Moreover, it was held by the Court of Appeals, several years ago that, unless sealed under §160.50 of the Criminal Procedure Law, records of the arresting agency identifying those arrested must be disclosed [see Johnson Newspapers v. Stainkamp, 61 NY 2d 958 (1984)].
With respect to the names of witnesses, complainants or victims, rights of access, or conversely, the ability to deny access, would in opinion be dependent on attendant facts. In some situations, a denial of access to the name of a complainant or victim may be appropriate. Under §50-b of the Civil Rights Law, police and other public officers are prohibited from disclosing the identity of the victim of a sex offense. Additionally, §87(2)(b) and (f) of the Freedom of Information Law provide respectively that an agency may withhold records insofar as disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" or "endanger the life or safety of any person." There are often situations in which names or other identifying details pertaining to witnesses or victims may be withheld under those provisions. Again, I am not suggesting that the name of a victim may be withheld in all circumstances, but rather in those situations in which the exceptions cited above could justifiably be asserted.
Often most relevant is §87(2)(e), which permits an agency to withhold records that are:
"are compiled for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed, would:
i. interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings;
ii. deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication;
iii. identify a confidential source or disclose confidential information relating to a criminal investigation; or
iv. reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures, except routine techniques and procedures."
The ability to deny access to records is dependent on the effects of disclosure. Only to the extent that the harmful effects described in subparagraphs (i) through (iv) would arise may §87(2)(e) be asserted.
In the context of criminal proceedings, a variety of information is routinely disclosed. An arraignment, for example, occurs during a public judicial proceeding, and information equivalent to that disclosed during an arraignment must, in my view, be disclosed by a police department or prosecutor. It has been held that once information has been disclosed during a public judicial proceeding, the grounds for denying access under the Freedom of Information Law no longer apply [see Moore v. Santucci, 151 AD2d 677 (1989)]. Further, when a person is arrested, taken into custody and is committed to a county jail, a record must be maintained at the jail that includes numerous details, all of which must be disclosed. Specifically, §500-f of the Correction Law, which pertains to county jails, states that:
"Each keeper shall keep a daily record, to be provided at the expense of the county, of the commitments and discharges of all prisoners delivered to his charge, which shall contain the date of entrance, name, offense, term of sentence, fine, age, sex, place of birth, color, social relations, education, secular and religious, for what any by whom committed, how and when discharged, trade or occupation, whether so employed when arrested, number of previous convictions. The daily record shall be a public record, and shall be kept permanently in the office of the keeper."
In sum, I believe that a blanket denial of a request for the kinds of records that you described would be inconsistent with law and that an agency must review the records to ascertain the extent to which they may properly be withheld.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Thomas G. Leone