August 25, 2005
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 indicated that you were denied access to documents relating to a confidential informant. You asked if you can appeal the denial.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, with respect to requests made before May 3, the Freedom of Information Law provided direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law stated 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 was required to 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 was given, it was required to include an approximate date indicating when it would be anticipated that a request will be granted or denied.
I note that there was no precise time period within which an agency must grant or deny access to records. The time needed to do so would 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 acknowledged the receipt of a request because more than five business days may have been needed to grant or deny a request, so long as it provided an approximate date indicating when the request would be granted or denied, and that date was reasonable in view of the attendant circumstances, I believe that the agency would have acted 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.
In a judicial decision that cited and confirmed the advice rendered by this office, Linz v. The Police Department of the City of New York (Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, December 17, 2001), 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 was given within five business days, if an agency delayed responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledged that a request had been received, or if the acknowledgement of the receipt of a request failed to include an estimated date for granting or denying access, a request, in my opinion, would 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 could 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 was made but a determination was 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 exhausted his or her administrative remedies and could 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)].
I note that the Freedom of Information Law was recently amended, and as of May 3, when
an agency receives a request, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law requires that it has five business days to grant or deny access in whole or in part, or if more time is needed, to acknowledge the receipt of the request in writing. The acknowledgement must include an approximate date that indicates when an agency will grant or deny the request. The date must be reasonable under the circumstances of the request, and in most instances, it cannot exceed twenty additional business days. If more than twenty additional business days is needed, the agency must provide an explanation and a date certain within which it will grant or deny the request in whole or in part. That date, too, must be reasonable in consideration of the facts (i.e., the volume or complexity of the request, the need to search for records, or the obligation to review records to determine rights of access). The amendments specify that a failure to comply with any of the time periods would constitute a denial of a request that may be appealed. The person designated to determine the appeal has ten business days to grant access or fully explain in writing the reasons for further denial. The law now also makes clear that a failure to determine the appeal within ten business days constitutes a denial of the appeal, and that the person denied access may initiate a judicial proceeding to challenge the denial of access.
With respect to your request, assuming that the records sought involve interviews of witnesses or informants that have not been previously disclosed, I believe that the Freedom of Information Law would determine rights of access. As a general matter, that statute 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. In my view, several of the grounds for denial could be pertinent.
Section 87(2)(b) permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy". From my perspective, the propriety of a denial of access would, under the circumstances, be dependent upon the nature of statements by witnesses or the contents of other records have already been disclosed. If disclosure of the records in question would not serve to infringe upon witnesses' privacy in view of prior disclosures, §87(2)(b) might not justifiably serve as a basis for denial. However, if the statements in question include substantially different information, that provision may be applicable.
Also potentially relevant 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 be withheld to the extent that disclosure would result in the harmful effects described in subparagraphs (i) through (iv) of §87(2)(e).
Section 87(2)(f) permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure could "endanger the life or safety of any person." Without knowledge of the facts and circumstances of your case, I could not conjecture as to the relevance of that provision.
Lastly, since you requested "You Should Know", which pertains to the Personal Privacy Protection Law, I point out that that statute is likely inapplicable in relation to your request. Although §95(1) of the Personal Privacy Protection Law generally grants rights of access to records to a person to whom the records pertain, §95(7) provides that rights of access "shall not apply to public safety agency records". The phrase "public safety agency record" is defined by §92(8) to mean:
"a record of the commission of corrections, the temporary state commission of investigation, the department of correctional services, the division for youth, the division of probation or the division of state police or of any agency of component thereof whose primary function is the enforcement of civil or criminal statutes if such record pertains to investigation, law enforcement, confinement of persons in correctional facilities or supervision of persons pursuant to criminal conviction or court order, and any records maintained by the division of criminal justice services pursuant to sections eight hundred thirty-seven, eight hundred thirty seven-a, eight hundred thirty-seven-c, eight hundred thirty-eight, eight hundred thirty-nine, eight hundred forty-five, and eight hundred forty-five-a of the executive law."
Therefore, while the Personal Privacy Protection Law applies to records maintained by state agencies, rights of access conferred by that law do not include records of agencies or units within agencies whose primary functions involve investigation, law enforcement or the confinement or persons in correctional facilities. Further, that statute excludes local government, i.e., a municipal police department, from its coverage [see definition of "agency", §92(1)].
I hope that I have been of assistance.
ROBERT J. FREEMAN
BY: Janet M. Mercer