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March 28, 1995

 

 

Mr. Sean Johnson
93-B-0226
354 Hunter Street
Ossining, NY 10562

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.

Dear Mr. Johnson:

I have received your letter of February 23 in which you sought assistance concerning requests for records.

As I understand the matter, the Monroe County Public Safety Laboratory produced scientific reports for the Ontario County District Attorney. Although requests for the reports were directed to both the Laboratory and the District Attorney, you have not received responses or what you consider to be satisfactory responses.

In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, 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. Although I believe that the person in receipt of your request should have answered in accordance with the Freedom of Information Law or forwarded the request to the appropriate person, if you have not sent your requests to the records access officers at the two agencies that maintain the records, it is suggested that you do so.

Second, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states 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..."

If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, or if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may 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 is made but a determination is 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 has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may 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)].

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 (i) of the Law.

Reports prepared by an agency would 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 recent 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 some assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:jm

cc: Records Access Officer, Monroe County
Records Access Officer, Office of Ontario County District Attorney