December 19, 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. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response. You have sought guidance concerning access to witness statements attached to police reports, including motor vehicle accident reports.
In this regard, first, 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.
Second, §89(6) states that if records are available under some other provision of law or by means of judicial interpretation, the grounds for denial appearing in §87(2) cannot be asserted. Insofar as the witness statements are part of motor vehicle accident reports, it is likely that they must be disclosed in their entirety in most instances.
Of potential relevance to the matter is §66-a of the Public Officers Law, which was enacted in 1941 and states that:
"Notwithstanding any inconsistent provisions of law, general, special of local or any limitation contained in the provision of any city charter, all reports and records of any accident, kept or maintained by the state police or by the police department or force of any county, city, town, village or other district of the state, shall be open to the inspection of any person having an interest therein, or of such person's attorney or agent, even though the state or a municipal corporation or other subdivision thereof may have been involved in the accident; except that the authorities having custody of such reports or records may prescribe reasonable rules and regulations in regard to the time and manner of such inspection, and may withhold from inspection any reports or records the disclosure of which would interfere with the investigation or involved in or connected with the accident."
The Freedom of Information Law is consistent with the language quoted above, for while accident reports are generally available, §87(2)(e)(i) of that statute states in relevant part that records compiled for law enforcement purposes may be withheld to the extent that disclosure would "interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings." Therefore, unless disclosure would interfere with a criminal investigation, an accident report would be available to any person, including one who had no involvement in an accident.
If the witness statements are separate from accident reports, I believe that the Freedom of Information Law would govern rights of access. If the only basis for withholding the statements involves a finding that disclosure would constitute “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” [see §87(2)(b)], personally identifying details could be deleted, and the remainder of those records would be accessible [see §89(2)(b)]. Insofar as the statements relate to an ongoing criminal investigation, §87(2)(e) may be pertinent, for that provision 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."
From my perspective, only those portions of the statements which if disclosed would result in the harmful effects described in subparagraphs (i) through (iv) would the Department have the authority to deny access; the remainder of the records would be accessible.
Of possible relevance, depending on the facts and circumstances, is §87(2)(f). That exception authorizes an agency to deny access insofar as disclosure could “endanger the life or safety of any person.”
The remaining exception of significance would be §87(2)(g). Although that provision potentially serves as a means of withholding records, due to its structure, it may require substantial disclosure. Specifically, §87(2)(g) enables 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.
One of the contentions offered by the New York City Police Department in a decision involving that provision was that certain reports could be withheld because they are not final and because they relate to incidents for which no final determination had been made. The state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, rejected that finding and stated that:
"...we note that one court has suggested that complaint follow-up reports are exempt from disclosure because they constitute nonfinal intra-agency material, irrespective of whether the information contained in the reports is 'factual data' (see, Matter of Scott v. Chief Medical Examiner, 179 AD2d 443, 444, supra [citing Public Officers Law §87[g]). However, under a plain reading of §87(2)(g), the exemption for intra-agency material does not apply as long as the material falls within any one of the provision's four enumerated exceptions. Thus, intra-agency documents that contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' are subject to FOIL disclosure, whether or not embodied in a final agency policy or determination (see, Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosp. Corp., 62 NY2d 75, 83, supra; Matter of MacRae v. Dolce, 130 AD2d 577)..." [Gould et al. v. New York City Police Department, 87 NY2d 267, 276 (1996)].
The Court 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).
"Against this backdrop, we conclude that the complaint follow-up reports contain substantial factual information available pursuant to the provisions of FOIL. Sections of the report are devoted to such purely factual data as: the names, addresses, and physical descriptions of crime victims, witnesses, and perpetrators; a checklist that indicates whether the victims and witnesses have been interviewed and shown photos, whether crime scenes have been photographed and dusted for fingerprints, and whether neighborhood residents have been canvassed for information; and a blank space denominated 'details' in which the officer records the particulars of any action taken in connection with the investigation" (id., 276-277)
The Court in Gould also emphasized that §87(2)(g) is intended to pertain to communications between and among government officers or employees and that, therefore, a statement by a witness, even if it is an opinion, would not be deniable under that provision because the witness would not be a representative of government.
I hope that I have been of assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to contact me.