June 16, 2004
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
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.
As you are aware, we have received your correspondence addressed to Janet, and we appreciate your kind words.
You referred initially to a provision in the Uniform Justice Court Act, §2019-a, and asked "what and is not releasable to the public" under that provision. From my perspective, §2019-a indicates that records maintained by a justice court are public, except when a different statute specifies that certain records are exempt from disclosure. For example, if a person is charged with a criminal offense, and the charge is dismissed in his or her favor, the records relating to the event are typically sealed pursuant to §§160.50 or 160.55 of the Criminal Procedure Law. Similarly, records pertaining to "apparently eligible" youths or persons adjudicated as youth offenders may be sealed under Article 720 of the Criminal Procedure Act. Those are the primary instances in my view in which records maintained by a justice court may not be accessible to the public.
I note that there is no single provision of law pertaining to court records. While §255 of the Judiciary Law generally requires that records in the custody of a court clerk are accessible, other provisions of law may deal with particular records or courts. For instance, §235 of the Domestic Relations Law provides that records pertaining to matrimonial proceedings are generally beyond public rights of access; §166 of the Family court Act states that records of those courts shall "not be open to indiscriminate public inspection", §2501 of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act pertains to Surrogate’s Court records.
Lastly, with respect to search warrants, I believe they may generally be withheld before they are executed based on §87(2)(e)(i) of the Freedom of Information Law, which deals with records compiled for law enforcement purposes. That provision and authorizes agencies to deny access when disclosure would interfere with an investigation or judicial proceeding. After a search warrant has been executed, there may be no basis for denying access.
I hope that I have been of assistance.