November 21, 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 information presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter in which you asked whether the following request made to a county clerk would "comply with the requirements of specificity" imposed by the Freedom of Information Law:
"...records that exist in your office  county clerk which are kept and maintained on computer that relate to any judgments, liens, assumed business name certificates, pistol permits, and any other records (as that term is defined in the New York State Freedom of Information Law) which are contained on compute [sic]."
In consideration of a request of that nature, you wrote that "[t]he very narrow issue is, can a requestor request copies of any and all records which are contained on a computer of a county clerk (forgetting about fees, exemptions, etc which is a separate issue) and does such a request ‘reasonably define’ a record sufficient for the agency to comply."
In this regard, the Freedom of Information Law does not require that an applicant for records must refer to "specific" records when making a request. Section 89(3) of that statute states that an applicant must "reasonably describe" the records sought." From my perspective, it is doubtful that a court would determine that your request meets that standard. A computer, as you are aware, may and often does contain a variety of records, information, data and e-mail concerning an array of subjects. In many instances, various aspects of the contents of those materials may be deniable under the Freedom of Information Law or perhaps other statutes. I would conjecture that a court would determine that a request for the contents of a computer or of all the computers used in the office of a county clerk is not a request for records and that it does not reasonably describe a record or record series.
The decision that appears to be factually most similar to the hypothetical request to which you referred involved a "massive" request denied by the New York City Department of Health in which the court sustained the agency’s denial of the request, finding that it "transcends a normal or routine request by taxpayer" (Fisher & Fisher v. Davison, Supreme Court, New York County, October 6, 1988).
In my view, your hypothetical request would essentially involve all of the records maintained by a county clerk; it would be equivalent to a request for all the books in a library. That being so, in short, I do not believe that a request for all of the information stored within a computer is, in actuality, a request for a record or records or that it would reasonably describe records in a manner envisioned in by the Freedom of Information Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman