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September 30, 1996

 

 

Mr. E. Higgins
92-A-7904
Midstate Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 216
Marcy, NY 13403-0216

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. Higgins:

I have received your letter of September 13. You have sought assistance in gaining access to the Suffolk County Jail's "procedure on strip search/strip frisk directive."

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, section 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 section 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 section 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 County Attorney has been designated to determine appeals of denials of access by Suffolk County Departments.

Second, as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all record of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more of the grounds for denial appearing in section 87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law. I am unfamiliar with the contents of the records in which you are interested. However, from my perspective, three of the grounds for denial may be relevant to your inquiry. Specifically, section 87(2)(g) states that an agency may 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 basis for denial is applicable. 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. It would appear that the records in question consist of instructions to staff that affect the public or an agency's policy. Therefore, I believe that rules and regulations would be available, unless a different basis for denial could be asserted.

A second provision of potential significance is section 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 of 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."

Under the circumstances, it appears that most relevant is section 87(2)(e)(iv). The leading decision concerning that provision is Fink v. Lefkowitz, which involved access to a manual prepared by a special prosecutor that investigated nursing homes, in which the Court of Appeals held that:

"The purpose of this exemption is obvious. Effective law enforcement demands that violators of the law not be apprised the nonroutine procedures by which an agency obtains its information (see Frankel v. Securities & Exch. Comm., 460 F2d 813, 817, cert den 409 US 889). However beneficial its thrust, the purpose of the Freedom of Information Law is not to enable persons to use agency records to frustrate pending or threatened investigations nor to use that information to construct a defense to impede a prosecution.

"To be distinguished from agency records compiled for law enforcement purposes which illustrate investigative techniques, are those which articulate the agency's understanding of the rules and regulations it is empowered to enforce. Records drafted by the body charged with enforcement of a statute which merely clarify procedural or substantive law must be disclosed. Such information in the hands of the public does not impede effective law enforcement. On the contrary, such knowledge actually encourages voluntary compliance with the law by detailing the standards with which a person is expected to comply, thus allowing him to conform his conduct to those requirements (see Stokes v. Brennan, 476 F2d 699, 702; Hawkes v. Internal Revenue Serv., 467 F2d 787, 794-795; Davis, Administrative Law [1970 Supp], section 3A, p 114).

"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 agency personnel (see Cox v. United States Dept. of Justice, 576 F2d 1302, 1307-1308; City of Concord v. Ambrose, 333 F Supp 958). It is no secret that numbers on a balance sheet can be made to do magical things by scrupulous nursing home operators the path that an audit is likely to take and alerting them to items to which investigators are instructed to pay particular attention, does not encourage observance of the law. Rather, release of such information actually countenances fraud by enabling miscreants to alter their books and activities to minimize the possibility or being brought to task for criminal activities. In such a case, the procedures contained in an administrative manual are, in a very real sense, compilations of investigative techniques exempt from disclosure. The Freedom of Information Law was not enacted to furnish the safecracker with the combination to the safe" (id. at 572-573).

In applying those criteria to specific portions of the manual, which was compiled for law enforcement purposes, the Court found that:

"Chapter V of the Special Prosecutor's Manual provides a graphic illustration of the confidential techniques used in a successful nursing home prosecution. None of those procedures are 'routine' in the sense of fingerprinting or ballistic tests (see Senate Report No. 93-1200, 93 Cong 2d Sess [1974]). Rather, they constitute detailed, specialized methods of conducting an investigation into the activities of a specialized industry in which voluntary compliance with the law has been less then exemplary.

"Disclosure of the techniques enumerated in those pages would enable an operator to tailor his activities in such a way as to significantly diminish the likelihood of a successful prosecution. The information detailed on pages 481 and 482 of the manual, on the other hand, is merely a recitation of the obvious: that auditors should pay particular attention to requests by nursing homes for Medicaid reimbursement rate increases based upon projected increase in cost. As this is simply a routine technique that would be used in any audit, there is no reason why these pages should not be disclosed" (id. at 573).

While I am unfamiliar with the records in question, it would appear that those portions which, if disclosed, would enable potential lawbreakers to evade detection could likely be withheld. It is noted that in another decision which dealt with a request for certain regulations of the State Police, the Court of Appeals found that some aspects of the regulations were non-routine, and that disclosure could "allow miscreants to tailor their activities to evade detection" [De Zimm v. Connelie, 64 NY 2d 860 (1985)]. Nevertheless, other portions of the records might be "routine" and apparently would not if disclosed preclude police officers from carrying out their duties effectively.

Lastly, the remaining ground for denial of possible relevance is section 87(2)(f). That provision permits an agency to withhold records when disclosure "would endanger the life of safety of any person." To the extent that disclosure would endanger the life of safety of law enforcement officers or others, it appears that section 87(2)(f) would be applicable.

In sum, while some aspects of the records might be deniable, others must in my opinion be disclosed in conjunction with the preceding commentary.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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