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July 12, 1995

 

 

Mr. Sharieff Clayton
94-A-3253
P.O. Box 500
Elmira, NY 14902-0500

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. Clayton:

I have received your letter of June 25, which reached this office on July 5.

Having made a request for records of the New York City Police Department that apparently has not been answered, you assumed that the failure to respond "was an indirect way of denying [your] request" and asked whether the Freedom of Information Law permits an agency to "just plain out ignore the request." Further, you asked whether "DD5's, police reports, medical reports, memo notes, statements and ballistic reports and photos" are available under the Freedom of Information Law.

In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, 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)].

For your information, the person designated to determine appeals at the New York City Police Department is Janet Lennon, Deputy Commission, Legal Matters.

Second, with respect to the records in question, 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.

I point out that there are several inconsistent judicial decisions concerning access to DD5's and police officers' memo books [see e.g., Scott v. Chief Medical Examiner, 179 AD 2d 443 (1992); Mitchell v. Slade, 173 AD 2d 226 (1992); Laureano v. Grimes, 179 AD 2d 600 (1992); Amaker v. Rosenberg, Supreme Court, New York County, June 26, 1995; Woods v. New York City Police Department, Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, February 2, 1995]. From my perspective, based on the language of the Freedom of Information Law and what I consider to be the most compelling judicial views on the matter (see especially Woods concerning DD5's and Amaker concerning memo books), those records, likely many others, may be accessible or deniable, in whole or in part, depending on their contents.

Since I am unaware of the contents of the records in which you are interested, or the effects of their disclosure, I cannot offer specific guidance. Nevertheless, the following paragraphs will review the provisions that may be significant in determining rights of access to the records in question.

Of potential significance is §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law, which permits an agency to withhold records or portions thereof when disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy". That provision might be applicable relative to the deletion of identifying details in a variety of situations, i.e., where a record identifies a confidential source or a witness, for example, or where the request involves medical records pertaining to a person other than yourself [see §89(2)(b)(i) and (ii)].

Perhaps the most relevant provision concerning access to records maintained by law enforcement agencies is §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."

In my view, the foregoing indicates that records compiled for law enforcement purposes can only be withheld to the extent that disclosure would result in the harmful effects described in sub- paragraphs (i) through (iv) of §87(2)(e). I point out that ballistic tests have been found to be available, because they involve routine investigative procedures [Spencer v. NYS Police, 187 AD 2d 919 (1992)].

Another possible ground for denial is §87(2)(f), which permits withholding to the extent that disclosure "would endanger the life or safety of any person". The capacity to withhold on that basis is dependent upon the facts and circumstances concerning an event.

The last relevant ground for denial is §87(2)(g). The cited provision 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 applies. 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.

Records prepared by employees of an agency and communicated within the agency or to another agency would in my view fall within the scope of §87(2)(g). Those records might include opinions or recommendations, for example, that could be withheld.

Lastly, 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: Janet Lennon
Lt. Joseph Cannata, Records Access Officer