March 15, 1996
Mr. Joseph Plater
Sing Sing Correctional Facility
354 Hunter Street
Ossining, NY 10562-5442
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. Plater:
I have received your letter of February 22. You wrote that you are interested in obtaining statements made by witnesses to a police department.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, since you referred to a request sent to a county clerk, I note that a request made under the Freedom of Information Law should be directed to the agency that maintains the records. In this instance, it would appear that a request should be sent to the arresting agency, the police department, unless you know that the county clerk maintains the records sought.
Second, the decision rendered in Moore v. Santucci [151 AD 2d 677 (1989)], which involved a request made to the office of a district attorney, may be pertinent to the matter. In Moore, it was found that:
"while statements of the petitioner, his codefendants and witnesses obtained by the respondent in the course of preparing a criminal case for trial are generally exempt from disclosure under FOIL (see Matter of Knight v. Gold, 53 AD2d 694, appeal dismissed 43 NY2d 841), 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" (id., 679).
Based on the foregoing, insofar as witnesses' statements are submitted into evidence or disclosed by means of a public judicial proceeding, I believe that they must be disclosed.
On the other hand, if witness statements have not been previously disclosed, two grounds for denial appearing in the Freedom of Information Law would appear to be relevant. 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.
Section 87(2)(b) permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy". From my perspective, the propriety of a denial of access would, under the circumstances, be dependent upon the nature of statements by witnesses or the contents of other records have already been disclosed. If disclosure of the records in question would not serve to infringe upon witnesses' privacy in view of prior disclosures, §87(2)(b) might not justifiably serve as a basis for denial. However, if the statements in question include substantially different information, that provision may be applicable.
Also potentially relevant 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 hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman