January 9, 2007
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 information presented in your correspondence.
As you are aware, I have received your letter concerning a request made to the State Police for records regarding “the killing of a NY State Trooper” in 1928. Even though the event occurred nearly eighty years ago, the records were withheld in consideration, in your words, of “privacy, internal administrative procedures and investigative nature of the material.” You have sought an advisory opinion concerning the propriety of the response.
In this regard, first and perhaps most importantly, 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. 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, the state’s highest court, confirmed its general view of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law in Gould v. New York City Police Department, 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)" [89 NY2d 267, 275 (1996)].
Just as significant, the Court in Gould repeatedly specified that a blanket denial of access to records is inconsistent with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law. In that case, the Police Department contended that complaint follow up reports could be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they fall within the exception regarding intra-agency materials, §87(2)(g), an exception different from that cited in response to your request. The Court, however, wrote that: "Petitioners contend that because the complaint follow-up reports contain factual data, the exemption does not justify complete nondisclosure of the reports. We agree" (id., 276), and stated as a general principle that "blanket exemptions for particular types of documents are inimical to FOIL's policy of open government" (id., 275). The Court also offered guidance to agencies and lower courts in determining rights of access and referred to several decisions it had previously rendered, stating that:
"...to invoke one of the exemptions of section 87(2), the agency must articulate 'particularized and specific justification' for not disclosing requested documents (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, supra, 47 N.Y.2d, at 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463). If the court is unable to determine whether withheld documents fall entirely within the scope of the asserted exemption, it should conduct an in camera inspection of representative documents and order disclosure of all nonexempt, appropriately redacted material (see, Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 N.Y.2d 131, 133, 490 N.Y.S. 2d, 488, 480 N.E.2d 74; Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., supra, 62 N.Y.2d, at 83, 476 N.Y.S.2d 69, 464 N.E.2d 437)" (id.).
In the context of your request, the State Police have engaged in a blanket denial of access in a manner which, in my view, is equally inappropriate. I am not suggesting that the records sought must be disclosed in full. Rather, based on the direction given by the Court of Appeals in several decisions, the records must be reviewed by that agency for the purpose of identifying those portions of the records that might fall within the scope of one or more of the grounds for denial of access. As the Court stated later in the decision: "Indeed, the Police Department is entitled to withhold complaint follow-up reports, or specific portions thereof, under any other applicable exemption, such as the law-enforcement exemption or the public-safety exemption, as long as the requisite particularized showing is made" (id., 277; emphasis added).
In short, I believe that the blanket denial of the request was inconsistent with law.
Second, the extent to which the exceptions to which the State Police referred may properly be asserted is, in my opinion, highly questionable in consideration of the passage of time.
With respect to privacy, §87(2)(b) authorizes an agency to withhold records insofar as disclosure would constitute “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” It is assumed that many, if not all, of those identified in the records are deceased. That alone would, in my view, diminish the likelihood that a denial of access based on the cited provision may be justified.
The Court of Appeals recently dealt with issues relating to those who died in the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as their surviving family members. The records in question involved 911 tape recordings of persons who died during the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the decision states that:
“We first reject the argument, advanced by the parties seeking disclosure here, that no privacy interest exists in the feelings and experiences of people no longer living. The privacy exception, it is argued, does not protect the dead, and their survivors cannot claim ‘privacy’ for experiences and feelings that are not their own. We think this argument contradicts the common understanding of the word ‘privacy’.”
“Almost everyone, surely, wants to keep from public view some aspects not only of his or her own life, but of the lives of loved ones who have died. It is normal to be appalled if intimate moments in the life of one’s deceased child, wife, husband or other close relative become publicly known, and an object of idle curiosity or a source of titillation. The desire to preserve the dignity of human existence even when life has passed is the sort of interest to which legal protection is given under the name of privacy. We thus hold that surviving relatives have an interest protected by FOIL in keeping private affairs of the dead (cf. Nat’l Archives and Records Admin. V. Favish, 541 US 157 )” [New York Times Company v. City of New York Fire Department, 43 NY3d 477; 484-485 (2005)].
Based on the foregoing, it is clear that there may be an interest in protecting privacy in consideration of the deceased, as well as their family members. Nevertheless, the ensuing question involves the content of records, and whether the information is so intimate or personal that disclosure would result in an “unwarranted” invasion of privacy. As stated by the Court:
“The recognition that surviving relatives have a legally protected privacy interest, however, is only the beginning of the inquiry. We must decide whether disclosure of the tapes and transcripts of the 911 calls would injure that interest, or the comparable interest of people who called 911 and survived, and whether the injury to privacy would be ‘unwarranted’ within the meaning of FOIL’s exception.”
In its focus on the nature of the calls, it was found that:
“The privacy interests in this case are compelling. The 911 calls at issue undoubtedly contain, in many cases, the words of people confronted, without warning, with the prospect of imminent death. Those words are likely to include expressions of the terror and agony the callers felt and of their deepest feelings about what their lives and their families meant to them. The grieving family of such a caller – or the caller, if he or she survived – might reasonably be deeply offended at the idea that these words could be heard on television or read in the New York Times.
“We do not imply that there is a privacy interest of comparable strength in all tapes and transcripts of calls made to 911. Two factors make the September 11 911 calls different.
“First, while some other 911 callers may be in as desperate straits as those who called on September 11, many are not. Secondly, the September 11 callers were part of an event that has received and will continue to receive enormous - - perhaps literally unequalled - - public attention. Many millions of people have reacted, and will react, to the callers’ fate with horrified fascination. Thus it is highly likely in this case - - more than in almost any other imaginable - - that, if the tapes and transcripts are made public, the will be replayed and republished endlessly, and that in some cases they will be exploited by media seeking to deliver sensational fare to their audience. This is the sort of invasion that the privacy exception exists to prevent” (id. 485, 486).
As I view the direction offered by the Court of Appeals, the extent to which the contents of records are indeed intimate and personal is the key factor in ascertaining whether disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. I would conjecture that the records that you have requested do not contain “expressions of terror or agony” or reflections of “deepest feelings” or emotions. Unless there is a demonstration that the records at issue include intimate personal information or sentiments in some way comparable to those referenced in New York Times, it is doubtful in my view the State Police could demonstrate that disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
The remaining grounds for denial offered by the State Police involve §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;”
That the records are “investigative in nature” is not determinative of rights of access. Critical is the effect of disclosure and whether or the extent to which disclosure would result in the kinds of harm described in subparagraphs (i) through (iv.) In view of the fact that nearly eighty years have passed since the event, it is inconceivable that significant aspects of the records relating to it would, if disclosed, interfere with an investigation. That is particularly so if indeed no investigative activity has recently occurred or is in any way ongoing. The less such activity has recently occurred, the less is the ability, in my view, to contend that disclosure would interfere with an investigation. If the case has effectively been closed, it might be contended that disclosure at this juncture would neither have an effect on nor interfere with the investigation.
With specific respect to “internal administrative procedures”, the key provision in my opinion is subparagraph (iv.) of §87(2)(e). That provision pertains to the authority to withhold records compiled for law enforcement purposes which, if disclosed, would reveal non-routine criminal investigative techniques and procedures.
In Fink v. Lefkowitz [47 NY2d 567 (1979)], the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, held that:
"The purpose of this exemption is obvious. Effective law enforcement demands that violators of the law not be apprised the nonroutine procedures by which an agency obtains its information (see Frankel v. Securities & Exch. Comm., 460 F2d 813, 817, cert den 409 US 889). However beneficial its thrust, the purpose of the Freedom of Information Law is not to enable persons to use agency records to frustrate pending or threatened investigations nor to use that information to construct a defense to impede a prosecution.
"To be distinguished from agency records compiled for law enforcement purposes which illustrate investigative techniques, are those which articulate the agency's understanding of the rules and regulations it is empowered to enforce. Records drafted by the body charged with enforcement of a statute which merely clarify procedural or substantive law must be disclosed. Such information in the hands of the public does not impede effective law enforcement. On the contrary, such knowledge actually encourages voluntary compliance with the law by detailing the standards with which a person is expected to comply, thus allowing him to conform his conduct to those requirements (see Stokes v. Brennan, 476 F2d 699, 702; Hawkes v. Internal Revenue Serv., 467 F2d 787, 794-795; Davis, Administrative Law [1970 Supp], section 3A, p 114).
"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 agency personnel (see Cox v. United States Dept. of Justice, 576 F2d 1302, 1307-1308; City of Concord v. Ambrose, 333 F Supp 958)."
In applying those criteria to specific portions of the manual, which was compiled for law enforcement purposes, the Court found that:
"Chapter V of the Special Prosecutor's Manual provides a graphic illustration of the confidential techniques used in a successful nursing home prosecution. None of those procedures are 'routine' in the sense of fingerprinting or ballistic tests (see Senate Report No. 93-1200, 93 Cong 2d Sess ). Rather, they constitute detailed, specialized methods of conducting an investigation into the activities of a specialized industry in which voluntary compliance with the law has been less then exemplary.
"Disclosure of the techniques enumerated in those pages would enable an operator to tailor his activities in such a way as to significantly diminish the likelihood of a successful prosecution. The information detailed on pages 481 and 482 of the manual, on the other hand, is merely a recitation of the obvious: that auditors should pay particular attention to requests by nursing homes for Medicaid reimbursement rate increases based upon projected increase in cost. As this is simply a routine technique that would be used in any audit, there is no reason why these pages should not be disclosed" (id. at 573).
As the Court of Appeals has suggested, to the extent that the records in question include descriptions of investigative techniques or procedures which if disclosed would enable potential lawbreakers to evade detection or endanger the lives or safety of law enforcement personnel or others [see also, Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(f)], a denial of access would be appropriate.
I would conjecture that the techniques and procedures used now may substantially differ from those employed some eighty years ago. If that is so, the ability to assert §87(2)(e)(iv) would likely be minimal. I note, too, that although it was held based on the facts in a particular case that although “laboratory examinations of certain items of evidence seized from both the crime scene and elsewhere” may be withheld, “ballistic and fingerprint tests” were found to be accessible, for disclosure of those tests would not enable future violators of law to tailor their conduct to evade detection [Spencer v. New York State Police, 187 AD2d 919 (1992)]
In an effort to enhance knowledge of and compliance with the Freedom of Information Law, a copy of this opinion will be sent to the records access officer at the State Police.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Laurie Wagner