October 11, 1996
Mr. Aramis Montalvo
Pouch No. 1
Woodbourne, NY 12788
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. Montalvo:
I have received your letter of September 25 and the correspondence attached to it.
You sought guidance concerning your rights of access to records relating to your conviction maintained by the New York City Police Department. Having reviewed your request, I offer the following comments.
First, you referred to both the New York Freedom of Information Law and the federal Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts in your requests. The federal acts apply only to federal agencies; the Freedom of Information Law generally governs rights of access to government records maintained by entities of state and local government in New York.
Second, 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. 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 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).
Lastly, with regard to criminal history records, the general repository of those records is the Division of Criminal Justice Services. While the subject of a criminal history record may obtain such record from the Division, it has been held that criminal history records maintained by that agency are exempted from public disclosure pursuant to §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law [Capital Newspapers v. Poklemba, Supreme Court, Albany County, April 6, 1989]. Nevertheless, if, for example, criminal conviction records were used in conjunction with a criminal proceeding by a district attorney, it has been held that the district attorney must disclose those records [see Thompson v. Weinstein, 150 AD 2d 782 (1989); also Geames v. Henry, 173 AD 2d 825 (1991)]. It is also noted that while records relating to convictions may be available from the courts or other sources, when charges are dismissed in favor of an accused, records relating to arrests that did not result in convictions are generally sealed pursuant to §160.50 of the Criminal Procedure Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Records Access Officer