October 19, 2006
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 for assistance in obtaining reports from the Monroe County Public Safety Laboratory and the Cellmark Diagnostic Laboratory.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, §86(4) of the Freedom of Information Law defines the term "agency" to mean:
"any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature."
Since Cellmark Diagnostic Laboratory is a private company, it is not an "agency" or, therefore, subject to the Freedom of Information Law. However, the records prepared by or for a Monroe County agency are, in my view subject to rights of access conferred by the Freedom of Information Law.
Second, under the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law (21 NYCRR Part 1401), each agency is required to designate one or more persons as "records access officer." The records access officer has the duty of coordinating an agency's response to requests, and a request should ordinarily be directed to the records access officer. It is suggested that you direct your request to the records access officer for Monroe County.
Third, as a general matter, 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 (j) of the Law.
Reports prepared by of for an agency fall within §87(2)(g), which permits 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.
Perhaps most significant is §87(2)(e) which authorizes 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."
It is likely that subparagraph (iv) would be most pertinent to the matter. In a decision, it was held that the purpose of §87(2)(e)(iv):
"is to prevent violators of the law from being apprised of nonroutine procedures by which law enforcement officials gather information (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 N.Y.2d 567, 572, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463). 'The Freedom of Information Law was not enacted to furnish the safecracker with the combination to the safe' (id., at 573, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463). 'Indicative, but not necessarily dispositive, of whether investigative techniques are nonroutine is whether disclosure of those procedures would give rise to a substantial likelihood that violators could evade detection by deliberately tailoring their conduct in anticipation of avenues of inquiry to be pursued by [law enforcement] personnel***' (id., at 572, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463 [citations omitted]). Even though a particular procedure may be 'time-tested', it may nevertheless be nonroutine (id., at 573, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E. 2d 463). Likewise, a highly detailed step-by-step depiction of the investigatory process should be exempted from disclosure" [Spencer v. New York State Police, 591 NYS 2d 207, 209-210, 187 AD 919 (1992)].
Additionally, the Court found that:
"petitioner is not entitled to disclosure of portions of the file relating to the method by which respondent gathered information about petitioner and his accomplices from certain private businesses because the disclosure of such information would enable future violators of the law to tailor their conduct to avoid detection by law enforcement personnel" (id. 210).
It seems unlikely that the disclosure of scientific or laboratory test results would in most instances enable potential lawbreakers to evade detection or encourage criminal activity. However, to the extent that those kinds of results could arise by means of disclosure, the records in question could in my opinion be withheld.
Lastly, I point out that in a decision concerning a request for records maintained by the office of a district attorney that would ordinarily be exempted from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law, it was held that "once the statements have been used in open court, they have lost their cloak of confidentiality and are available for inspection by a member of the public" [see Moore v. Santucci, 151 AD 2d 677, 679 (1989)]. Based upon that decision, it appears that records introduced into evidence or disclosed during a public judicial proceeding should be available. However, in the same decision, it was also found that:
"...if the petitioner or his attorney previously received a copy of the agency record pursuant to an alternative discovery device and currently possesses the copy, a court may uphold an agency's denial of the petitioner's request under the FOIL for a duplicate copy as academic. However, the burden of proof rests with the agency to demonstrate that the petitioner's specific requests are moot. The respondent's burden would be satisfied upon proof that a copy of the requested record was previously furnished to the petitioner or his counsel in the absence of any allegation, in evidentiary form, that the copy was no longer in existence. In the event the petitioner's request for a copy of a specific record is not moot, the agency must furnish another copy upon payment of the appropriate fee...unless the requested record falls squarely within the ambit of 1 of the 8 statutory exemptions" (id., 678).
I hope that I have been of assistance.
ROBERT J. FREEMAN
BY: Janet M. Mercer