February 28, 1996
Mr. Martin Jones, Sr.
Attica Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 149
Attica, NY 14011
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. Jones:
I have received your letter of February 9 in which you raised questions concerning the Freedom of Information Law.
First, although you asked that records be "certified correct" by the City of Buffalo Police Department, upon receipt of the records, there was no such certification. You have asked how you might remedy the matter.
In this regard, in an effort to clarify the Department's responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Law, a copy of this opinion will be sent to the officer mentioned in your letter, and it is suggested that you contact him as well.
With respect to the issue, when a request for a record is approved, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Upon payment or offer to pay, the fee prescribed therefor, the entity shall provide a copy of such record and certify to the correctness of such copy if so requested, or as the case may be, shall certify that it does not have possession of such record or that such record cannot be found after diligent search."
Based upon the foregoing, an agency is required to certify that a copy of a record made or to be made available is a true copy upon request to do so.
I point out that §89(1)(b)(iii) of the Freedom of Information Law requires the Committee on Open Government to promulgate regulations concerning the procedural aspects of the Law (see 21 NYCRR Part 1401). In turn, §87(1)(a) of the Law states that:
"the governing body of each public corporation shall promulgate uniform rules and regulations for all agencies in such public corporation pursuant to such general rules and regulations as may be promulgated by the committee on open government in conformity with the provisions of this article, pertaining to the administration of this article."
The initial responsibility to deal with requests is borne by an agency's records access officer, and the Committee's regulations provide direction concerning the designation and duties of a records access officer. Specifically, §1401.2 of the regulations provides in relevant part that:
"(a) The governing body of a public corporation and the head of an executive agency or governing body of other agencies shall be responsible for insuring compliance with the regulations herein, and shall designate one or more persons as records access officer by name or by specific job title and business address, who shall have the duty of coordinating agency response to public requests for access to records. The designation of one or more records access officers shall not be construed to prohibit officials who have in the past been authorized to make records or information available to the public from continuing to do so."
Further, §1401.2(b) of the regulations describes the duties of a records access officer and states in relevant part that:
"The records access Officer is responsible for assuring that agency personnel...
(5) Upon request, certify that a record is a true copy..."
Pursuant to §1401.2(b)(5) and to implement §89(3) concerning an agency's duty to provide certification, the records access officer has the duty of ensuring that agency personnel certify that copies of records are true copies.
It is also noted that a certification made under the Freedom of Information Law does not pertain to the accuracy of the contents of a record, but rather would involve an assertion that a copy is a true copy. In other words, a certification prepared pursuant to §89(3) would not indicate that the contents of a record are complete, accurate or "legal"; it would merely indicate that the copy of the record is a true copy.
Additionally, it has been consistently advised, particularly when certification is requested with respect to a voluminous number of records, that a single certification, given by means of a written assertion, statement or affidavit, for example, describing or identifying the records that were copied, would be sufficient. I do not believe that each copy of records made available under the Freedom of Information Law must be stamped or "certified" separately.
Second, you wrote that your family sent requests to the Department on October 4 and that having received no response, they visited headquarters with a copy of the request and "were told that they could not inspect/copy anything, flat out." You asked which Department records are not subject the Freedom of Information Law and what your family can do to gain access.
Without knowledge of the nature of the records sought, I cannot offer specific guidance. However, 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, too, that 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)].
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Lt. Larry Baehre
Lt. Mark Makowski