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FOIL-AO-14196

August 19, 2003

 

The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.

Dear

I have received several letters from you concerning requests for records made to Livingston and Monroe Counties, as well as the Village of Mt. Morris. In consideration of the chronology of developments relating to your requests, I offer the following comments.

First, in response to your request to Livingston County, you were informed that the materials involve approximately a thousand pages, and that the figure does not include the transcript of your trial. That being so, the fee for copies would be $250. In an effort to ascertain which among those records would be greatest interest, you requested an index or synopsis of the records. You were informed that there is no index and asked whether there is a requirement that a record of that nature be prepared.

In this regard, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records, and §89(3) states in part that an agency is not required to create a record in response to a request. Therefore, if no index to or synopsis of records within a file exists, the agency would not be required to prepare such a record on your behalf. Perhaps you could designate a person to review the records on your behalf in order to identify those that may be of interest.

A second issue involves your ability to obtain duplicate color photographs from the Mt. Vernon Police Department. In a relatively recent decision, the court determined that "colored photocopies are to be copied in color, unless Respondents satisfy the Court that the County does not own a color copier," and if the person seeking copies pays "the full costs of such duplications." If there is no color copier, the Court directed that photocopies be made and if they do "not prove sufficiently legible", this court would consider "photo-reproduction services" [Mixon v. Wolf, Supreme Court, Erie County, March 4, 2002].

Next, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests and appeals. 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..."

Based on the foregoing, an agency must grant access to records, deny access or acknowledge the receipt of a request within five business days of receipt of a request. When an acknowledgement is given, it must include an approximate date indicating when it can be anticipated that a request will be granted or denied.

I note that 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.

That advice was confirmed in Linz v. The Police Department of the City of New York (Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, December 17, 2001), in which it was held that:

"In the absence of a specific statutory period, this Court concludes that respondents should be given a 'reasonable' period to comply with a FOIL request. The determination of whether a period is reasonable must be made on a case by case basis taking into account the volume of documents requested, the time involved in locating the material, and the complexity of the issues involved in determining whether the materials fall within one of the exceptions to disclosure. Such a standard is consistent with some of the language in the opinions, submitted by petitioners in this case, of the Committee on Open Government, the agency charged with issuing advisory opinions on FOIL."

If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, or if the acknowledgement of the receipt of a request fails to include an estimated date for granting or denying access, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied [see DeCorse v. City of Buffalo, 239 AD2d 949, 950 (1997)]. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states in relevant part that:

"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."

In addition, it has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD 2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY 2d 774 (1982)].

Next, in consideration of your requests, 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. Since I am unaware of the contents of the records in which you are interested or the effects of their disclosure, I cannot offer specific guidance. Nevertheless, the following paragraphs will review the provisions that may be significant in determining rights of access to the records in question.

Relevant is a decision by the Court of Appeals concerning records prepared by police officers in which it was held that a denial of access based on their characterization as intra-agency materials would be inappropriate. The provision at issue, §87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law, enables an agency to withhold records 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.

In its analysis of the matter, it was determined that the agency could not claim that the records can be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they constitute intra-agency materials. However, the Court was careful to point out that other grounds for denial might apply in consideration of those records. [Gould, Scott and DeFelice v. New York City Police Department, 89 NY2d 267 (1996)].

For instance, of potential significance is §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law, which permits an agency to withhold records or portions thereof when disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy". That provision might be applicable relative to the deletion of identifying details in a variety of situations, i.e., where a record identifies a confidential source, a witness, or others interviewed in an investigation.

Often the most relevant provision concerning access to records maintained by law enforcement agencies is §87(2)(e), which permits an agency to withhold records that:

"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."

In my view, the foregoing indicates that records compiled for law enforcement purposes can only be withheld to the extent that disclosure would result in the harmful effects described in sub- paragraphs (i) through (iv) of §87(2)(e).

Another possible ground for denial is §87(2)(f), which permits withholding to the extent that disclosure "would endanger the life or safety of any person". The capacity to withhold on that basis is dependent upon the facts and circumstances concerning an event.

Lastly, based on the decision rendered in Moore v. Santucci [151 AD2d 677 (1989)], if a record was previously made available to you or your attorney, i.e., in conjunction with a criminal proceeding, there must be a demonstration that neither you nor your attorney possesses the record in order to successfully obtain a second copy. Specifically, the decision states that:

"...if the petitioner or his attorney previously received a copy of the agency record pursuant to an alternative discovery device and currently possesses the copy, a court may uphold an agency's denial of the petitioner's request under the FOIL for a duplicate copy as academic. However, the burden of proof rests with the agency to demonstrate that the petitioner's specific requests are moot. The respondent's burden would be satisfied upon proof that a copy of the requested record was previously furnished to the petitioner or his counsel in the absence of any allegation, in evidentiary form, that the copy was no longer in existence. In the event the petitioner's request for a copy of a specific record is not moot, the agency must furnish another copy upon payment of the appropriate fee...unless the requested record falls squarely within the ambit of 1 of the 8 statutory exemptions" (id., 678).

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:tt

cc: David Morris
Sherman A. Yates
Richard F. Mackey
John C. Putney