December 21, 1995
Mr. Larry Tinsley
Great Meadow Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 51
Comstock, NY 12821
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. Tinsley:
I have received your letter of November 24. Notwithstanding your view of my response to you of November 20, I believe that it was as complete as it could have been based on the information that you provided.
Having reviewed your latest correspondence, it is emphasized that the Committee on Open Government is authorized to provide advice concerning the Freedom of Information and Personal Privacy Protection Laws. The Committee does not maintain control of an agency's records and it is not empowered to enforce those statutes or compel an agency to grant or deny access to records. Nevertheless, in an effort to offer guidance, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information pertains to existing records. Section 89(3) of that statute provides in part that an agency need not create or prepare a record that it does not maintain. Further, agencies are not in most instances required to keep records permanently. Records may be discarded or destroyed in accordance with schedules indicating the length time that they must be kept.
When an agency indicates that it does not maintain or cannot locate a record, an applicant for the record may seek a certification to that effect. Section 89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law provides in part that, in such a situation, on request, an agency "shall certify that it does not have possession of such record or that such record cannot be found after diligent search." If you consider it worthwhile to do so, you could seek such a certification.
I point out that in Key v. Hynes [613 NYS 2d 926, 205 AD 2d 779 (1994)], it was found that a court could not validly accept conclusory allegations as a substitute for proof that an agency could not locate a record after having made a "diligent search". However, in another decision, such an allegation was found to be sufficient when "the employee who conducted the actual search for the documents in question submitted an affidavit which provided an adequate basis upon which to conclude that a 'diligent search' for the documents had been made" [Thomas v. Records Access Officer, 613 NYS 2d 929, 205 AD 2d 786 (1994)].
Second, you wrote that you were informed that the information sought was "not specific." In this regard, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that an applicant must "reasonably describe" the records sought. In considering that standard, the State's highest court has found that requested records need not be "specifically designated", that to meet the standard, the terms of a request must be adequate to enable the agency to locate the records, and that an agency must "establish that 'the descriptions were insufficient for purposes of locating and identifying the documents sought'...before denying a FOIL request for reasons of overbreadth" [Konigsberg v. Coughlin, 68 NY 2d 245, 249 (1986)].
Although it was found in the decision cited above that the agency could not reject the request due to its breadth, it was also stated that:
"respondents have failed to supply any proof whatsoever as to the nature - or even the existence - of their indexing system: whether the Department's files were indexed in a manner that would enable the identification and location of documents in their possession (cf. National Cable Tel. Assn. v Federal Communications Commn., 479 F2d 183, 192 [Bazelon, J.] [plausible claim of nonidentifiability under Federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 USC section 552 (a) (3), may be presented where agency's indexing system was such that 'the requested documents could not be identified by retracing a path already trodden. It would have required a wholly new enterprise, potentially requiring a search of every file in the possession of the agency']" (id. at 250).
In my view, whether a request reasonably describes the records sought, as suggested by the Court of Appeals, may be dependent upon the terms of a request, as well as the nature of an agency's filing or record-keeping systems. In Konigsberg, it appears that the agency was able to locate the records on the basis of an inmate's name and identification number. In this instance, I am unaware of the means by which the Department maintains the records in which you are interested. If it maintains all of the records sought in a file or group of files that are retrievable on the basis of the terms of your request, I believe that you would have met the requirement that the records be reasonably described. On the other hand, however, it is possible that the Department maintains records falling within the scope of your request in a number of locations or units and by means of different filing systems within those units. If that is so, your request, or perhaps portions of it, might not have reasonably described the records.
Third, you referred to the "privacy act." As suggested earlier, that statute in New York is known as the Personal Privacy Protection Law. In my view, that statute would not apply in the context of your request. Although §95(1) of the Personal Privacy Protection Law generally grants rights of access to records to a person to whom the records pertain, §95(7) provides that rights of access "shall not apply to public safety agency records". The phrase "public safety agency record" is defined by §92(8) to mean:
"a record of the commission of corrections, the temporary state commission of investigation, the department of correctional services, the division for youth, the division of probation or the division of state police or of any agency of component thereof whose primary function is the enforcement of civil or criminal statutes if such record pertains to investigation, law enforcement, confinement of persons in correctional facilities or supervision of persons pursuant to criminal conviction or court order, and any records maintained by the division of criminal justice services pursuant to sections eight hundred thirty-seven, eight hundred thirty seven-a, eight hundred thirty-seven-c, eight hundred thirty-eight, eight hundred thirty-nine, eight hundred forty-five, and eight hundred forty-five-a of the executive law."
Therefore, while the Personal Privacy Protection Law applies to records maintained by state agencies, rights of access conferred by that law do not include records of agencies or units within agencies whose primary functions involve investigation, law enforcement or the confinement or persons in correctional facilities.
The Freedom of Information Law, however, is applicable to all agency records. In brief, that statute 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. 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.
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).
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.
I point out that a decision rendered in 1989 might have dealt with records similar to some of those in which you are interested. In that case, it was stated that:
"The petitioner seeks disclosure of unredacted portions of five Program Security and Assessment Summary forms, prepared semi-annually or upon the transfer of an inmate from one facility to another, which contain information to assist the respondents in determining the placement of the inmate in the most appropriate facility. The respondents claim that these documents are exempted from disclosure under the intra-agency memorandum exemption contained in the Freedom of Information Law (Public Officers Law, section 87[g]). We have examined in camera unredacted copies of the documents at issue (see Matter of Nalo v. Sullivan, 125 AD 2d 311, 509 NYS 2d 53; see also Matter of Allen Group, Inc. v. New York State Dept. of Motor Vehicles, App. Div., 538 NYS 2d 78), and find that they are exempted as intra-agency material, inasmuch as they contain predecisional evaluations, recommendations and conclusions concerning the petitioner's conduct in prison (see Matter of Kheel v. Ravitch, 62 NY 2d 1, 475 NYS 2d 814, 464 NE 2d 118; Matter of Town of Oyster Bay v. Williams, 134 AD 2d 267, 520 NYS 2d 599)" [Rowland D. v. Scully, 543 NYS 2d 497, 498; 152 AD 2d 570 (1989)].
Insofar as the records sought are equivalent to those described in Rowland D., it appears that they could be withheld.
I hope that the foregoing serves to enhance your understanding of applicable law and that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman