March 12, 1997
Mr. Philip King
Pouch Number 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. King:
I have received your letter of February 10 and the materials attached to it. You asked for my views concerning a response to a request for records issued by the office of the Queens County District Attorney.
In brief, Assistant District Attorney Lee denied the request on the ground that the District Attorney had "already disclosed all available records" in response to previous requests made under the Freedom of Information Law. Nevertheless, you wrote that you had not previously sought the records that were the subject of the response, that "[t]o receive a document under FOIL, it must be requested specificy" [sic], and that you had never requested all of the records that could have been disclosed. Further, in your request, you focused on records pertaining to interviews of witnesses.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law does not require that specific records be requested. By way of background, when the Freedom of Information Law was initially enacted in 1974, it required that an applicant seek "identifiable" records. That standard often resulted in difficulties, for applicants for records were often unaware of the particular records sought and therefore could not identify them. Nonetheless, when the Freedom of Information Law was revised, the standard for requesting records was altered. Since 1978, §89(3) has stated that an applicant must "reasonably describe" the records sought. I point out that it has been held that a request reasonably describes the records when the agency can locate and identify the records based on the terms of a request, and that to deny a request on the ground that it fails to reasonably describe the records, an agency must establish that "the descriptions were insufficient for purposes of locating and identifying the documents sought" [Konigsberg v. Coughlin, 68 NY 2d 245, 249 (1986)].
Second, I am unfamiliar with your previous requests or which records might have been disclosed or withheld. Of potential relevance to the matter is the decision rendered in Moore v. Santucci [151 AD 2d 677 (1989)], in which it was held that if records have been disclosed during a public proceeding, they are generally available under the Freedom of Information Law. In that decision, it was also found, however, that an agency need not make available records that had been previously disclosed to the applicant or that person's attorney, unless there is an allegation "in evidentiary form, that the copy was no longer in existence." In my view, if you can "in evidentiary form" demonstrate that neither you nor your attorney maintain records that had previously been disclosed, the agency would be required to respond to a request for the same records. I also point out, however, that the decision in Moore specified that the respondent office of a district attorney was "not required to make available for inspection or copying any suppression hearing or trial transcripts of a witness' testimony in its possession, because the transcripts are court records, not agency records" (id. at 680).
Third, assuming that the records sought involving interviews of witnesses have not been previously disclosed, I believe that the Freedom of Information Law would determine rights of access. As a general matter, that statute 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. In my view, several of the grounds for denial could be pertinent.
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 be withheld to the extent that disclosure would result in the harmful effects described in subparagraphs (i) through (iv) of §87(2)(e).
Section 87(2)(f) permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would "endanger the life or safety of any person." Without knowledge of the facts and circumstances of your case, I could not conjecture as to the relevance of that provision.
Lastly, §87(2)(g) authorizes 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 could appropriately be asserted. 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.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Young C. Lee