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December 12, 1996

 

 

Mr. Jody Allen
86-B-2551
Auburn Corr. Facility
PO Box 618
Auburn, NY 13021-0618

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

I have received your letters of October 27 and November 22. You have sought assistance in obtaining records which in your view would be exculpatory.

In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, the courts have provided direction concerning the Freedom of Information Law as opposed to the use of discovery under the Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR) in civil proceedings, and discovery in criminal proceedings under the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL). The principle is that the Freedom of Information Law is a vehicle that confers rights of access upon the public generally, while the disclosure provisions of the CPLR or the CPL, for example, are separate vehicles that may require or authorize disclosure of records due to one's status as a litigant or defendant.

As stated by the Court of Appeals in a case involving a request made under the Freedom of Information Law by a person involved in litigation against an agency: "Access to records of a government agency under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) (Public Officers Law, Article 6) is not affected by the fact that there is pending or potential litigation between the person making the request and the agency" [Farbman v. NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, 62 NY 2d 75, 78 (1984)]. Similarly, in an earlier decision, the Court of Appeals determined that "the standing of one who seeks access to records under the Freedom of Information Law is as a member of the public, and is neither enhanced...nor restricted...because he is also a litigant or potential litigant" [Matter of John P. v. Whalen, 54 NY 2d 89, 99 (1980)]. The Court in Farbman, supra, discussed the distinction between the use of the Freedom of Information Law as opposed to the use of discovery in Article 31 of the CPLR. Specifically, it was found that:

"FOIL does not require that the party requesting records make any showing of need, good faith or legitimate purpose; while its purpose may be to shed light on governmental decision-making, its ambit is not confined to records actually used in the decision-making process (Matter of Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 581.) Full disclosure by public agencies is, under FOIL, a public right and in the public interest, irrespective of the status or need of the person making the request.

"CPLR article 31 proceeds under a different premise, and serves quite different concerns. While speaking also of 'full disclosure' article 31 is plainly more restrictive than FOIL. Access to records under CPLR depends on status and need. With goals of promoting both the ascertainment of truth at trial and the prompt disposition of actions (Allen v. Crowell-Collier Pub. Co., 21 NY 2d 403, 407), discovery is at the outset limited to that which is 'material and necessary in the prosecution or defense of an action'" [see Farbman, supra, at 80].

Most recently, the Court of Appeals held that the CPL does not limit a defendant's ability to attempt to obtain records under the Freedom of Information Law (Gould v. New York City Police Department, __NY 2d__, decided November 26, 1996).

In sum, I believe that the Freedom of Information Law imposes a duty to disclose records, as well as the capacity to withhold them, irrespective of the status or interest of the person requesting them. To be distinguished are other provisions of law that may require disclosure based upon one's status, e.g., as a defendant, and the nature of the records or their materiality to a proceeding.

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).

As you requested, your letter is being returned to you.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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