April 22, 2004
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 requested assistance concerning your requests and appeals made under the Freedom of Information Law to the New York City Police Department. You complained that you were denied access or received no replies to your inquiries.
In this regard, having reviewed our files concerning appeals, it was found that the New York City Police Department forwarded to the Committee two determinations of your appeals. It is noted that the address the New York City Police Department used for you is erroneous. Since correctional facilities do not forward mail to inmates, I have enclosed copies of those letters for your review.
You also requested "a complete itemized inventory and denial of factual justification of total or part denial of" documents directed to the New York City Police Department. With respect to an index of documents within a file or index of those withheld, there is nothing in the Freedom of Information Law or judicial decision construing that statute that would require that a denial at the agency level identify every record withheld or include a description of the reason for withholding each document. Such a requirement has been imposed under the federal Freedom of Information Act, which may involve the preparation of a so-called "Vaughn index" [see Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2D 820 (1973)]. Such an index provides an analysis of documents withheld by an agency as a means of justifying a denial and insuring that the burden of proof remains on the agency. Again, I am unaware of any decision involving the New York Freedom of Information Law that requires the preparation of a similar index.
Further, one decision suggests the preparation of that kind of analysis might in some instances subvert the purpose for which exemptions are claimed. In that decision, an inmate requested records referring to him as a member of organized crime or an escape risk. In affirming a denial by a lower court, the Appellate Division found that:
"All of these documents were inter-agency or intra-agency materials exempted under Public Officers Law section 87(2)(g) and some were materials the disclosure of which could endanger the lives or safety of certain individuals, and thus were exempted under Public Officers Law section 87(2)(f). The failure of the respondents and the Supreme Court, Westchester County, to disclose the underlying facts contained in these documents so as to establish that they did not fall 'squarely within the ambit of [the] statutory exemptions' (Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health and Hosps. Corp., 62 NY 2d 75, 83; Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY 2d 567, 571), did not constitute error. To make such disclosure would effectively subvert the purpose of these statutory exemptions which is to preserve the confidentiality of this information" [Nalo v. Sullivan, 125 AD 2d 311, 312 (1987)].
I hope that the foregoing serves to clarify your understanding of the Freedom of Information Law and that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman