August 16, 2006
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, I have received your letter concerning a situation in which your daughter was involved in an automobile accident, and her version of the event is different from that appearing in police reports. You referred to an attempt to obtain police officers’ "writing at the accident" and a desire to obtain "a written answer to [y]our daughter’s statement." In addition, certain information that you seek to obtain does not appear in records that you have obtained, and you have sought guidance in obtaining that information.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records, and §89(3) provides in relevant part that a government agency is not required to create or prepare a record in response to a request for information. In short, insofar as the information of your interest is not maintained in a record or records, the Freedom of Information Law would not apply.
Second, the Freedom of Information Law includes within its coverage all records maintained by or for an agency [see definition of "record", §86(4)], and it has been held by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, that police officer’s memo books constitute "records" that fall within the scope of that law [see Gould v. New York City Police Department, 89 NY2d 267 (1996)]. In that case, the Police Department contended that memo books, also known as "police activity logs", were not "records" that fell within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law, but rather were the personal property of police officers. In rejecting the Department's position, the Court found that:
"Activity logs are the leather-bound books in which officers record all their work-related activities, including assignments received, tasks performed, and information relating to suspected violations of law. Significantly, the Police Department issues activity logs to all its officers, who are required to maintain these memo books in the course of their regular duties and to store the completed books in their lockers; the officers are obligated to surrender the activity logs to superiors for inspection upon request; and the contents of the logs are meticulously prescribed by departmental regulation (accord, Matter of Washington Post Co. v. New York State Ins. Dept., 61 N.Y.2d 557, 564-565. 475 N.Y.S.2d 263, 463 N.E.2d 604 [minutes of meetings of private insurance companies, required by regulation to be turned over to Insurance Department for inspection, are 'records' under FOIL]). Thus, although the officers generally maintain physical possession of the activity logs, they are nevertheless 'kept [or] held' by the officers for the Police Department, which places these documents squarely within the statutory definition of 'records' (see, Matter of Encore Coll. Bookstores v. Auxiliary Serv. Corp., 87 N.Y.2d 410, 417, 639, N.Y.S.2d 990, 663 N.E.2d 302). Subject to any applicable exemption and upon payment of the appropriate fee (see, Public Officers Law, § 87[b][iii]), the activity logs are agency records available under provisions of FOIL" (id., 278-279).
It appears that the "writing at the accident" might have been made in memo books analogous to those described by the Court of Appeals in Gould. If that is so, their contents would be subject to rights of access.
Third, 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. It is emphasized that the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the exceptions that follow. In my view, the phrase quoted in the preceding sentence evidences a recognition on the part of the Legislature that a single record or report, for example, might include portions that are available under the statute, as well as portions that might justifiably be withheld. That being so, I believe that it also imposes an obligation on an agency to review records sought, in their entirety, to determine which portions, if any, might properly be withheld or deleted prior to disclosing the remainder.
The Court of Appeals reiterated its general view of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law in Gould, stating that:
"To ensure maximum access to government records, the 'exemptions are to be narrowly construed, with the burden resting on the agency to demonstrate that the requested material indeed qualifies for exemption' (Matter of Hanig v. State of New York Dept. of Motor Vehicles, 79 N.Y.2d 106, 109, 580 N.Y.S.2d 715, 588 N.E.2d 750 see, Public Officers Law § 89[b]). As this Court has stated, '[o]nly where the material requested falls squarely within the ambit of one of these statutory exemptions may disclosure be withheld' (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 N.Y.2d, 567, 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463)" (id., 275).
It would appear that most pertinent under the circumstances as you presented them would be §87(2)(g). Although that provision potentially serves as a basis for a denial of access, due to its structure, it often requires substantial disclosure. Specifically, the cited provision authorizes 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.
The Court in Gould also dealt with the issue of what constitutes "factual data" that must be disclosed under §87(2)(g)(I). In its consideration of the matter, the Court found that:
"...Although the term 'factual data' is not defined by statute, the meaning of the term can be discerned from the purpose underlying the intra-agency exemption, which is 'to protect the deliberative process of the government by ensuring that persons in an advisory role [will] be able to express their opinions freely to agency decision makers' (Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 NY2d 131, 132 [quoting Matter of Sea Crest Constr. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD2d 546, 549]). Consistent with this limited aim to safeguard internal government consultations and deliberations, the exemption does not apply when the requested material consists of 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law 87[g][I]. Factual data, therefore, simply means objective information, in contrast to opinions, ideas, or advice exchanged as part of the consultative or deliberative process of government decision making (see, Matter of Johnson Newspaper Corp. v. Stainkamp, 94 AD2d 825, 827, affd on op below, 61 NY2d 958; Matter of Miracle Mile Assocs. v. Yudelson, 68 AD2d 176, 181-182)" (id., 276-277).
I hope that I have been of assistance.