April 9, 2004
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.
I have received your letter in which you asked for assistance concerning your efforts in gaining access to records concerning your arrest from the New York City Police Department.
You requested various documents pertaining to your arrest. The Police Department denied access and you appealed. Your appeal was denied and you initiated an Article 78 proceeding. However, your documents relating to the Article 78 proceeding were seized and lost by staff of the Department of Correctional Services. You have asked what other "avenues are at your disposal in an attempt to receive these documents."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, since the documents were lost, you may be able to file a second Freedom of Information Law request, particularly if, as you suggested, the records were seized and you are not responsible for their loss. However, judicial interpretations pertinent to the matter appear to reach somewhat contrary conclusions. In one decision, although a petition was dismissed on the ground that it was not timely commenced, it was held that a petitioner was not barred from seeking the records again under appropriate procedures (Matter of Mitchell, Supreme Court, Nassau County, NYLJ, March 9, 1979). In that situation, if the applicant renewed his or her request and appealed a denial of access, that person would have been able to seek judicial review of the denial within four months of the agency's determination. On the other hand, a proceeding was found to have been time barred when a challenge to a second denial of access was made on the same basis as an initial denial, and there was no change in circumstances [Corbin v. Ward, 160 AD 2d 596 (1990)].
Second, with respect to the records concerning your arrest, 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 all 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.
In considering the records falling within the scope of your request, relevant is a decision by the Court of Appeals concerning "complaint follow up reports" prepared by police officers and police officers' memo books in which it was held that a denial of access based on their characterization as intra-agency materials would be inappropriate.
The provision at issue, §87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law, enables 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.
In its analysis of the matter, the decision states that:
"...we note that one court has suggested that complaint follow-up reports are exempt from disclosure because they constitute nonfinal intra-agency material, irrespective of whether the information contained in the reports is 'factual data' (see, Matter of Scott v. Chief Medical Examiner, 179 AD2d 443, 444, supra [citing Public Officers Law §87[g]). However, under a plain reading of §87(2)(g), the exemption for intra-agency material does not apply as long as the material falls within any one of the provision's four enumerated exceptions. Thus, intra-agency documents that contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' are subject to FOIL disclosure, whether or not embodied in a final agency policy or determination (see, Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosp. Corp., 62 NY2d 75, 83, supra; Matter of MacRae v. Dolce, 130 AD2d 577)...
"...Although the term 'factual data' is not defined by statute, the meaning of the term can be discerned from the purpose underlying the intra-agency exemption, which is 'to protect the deliberative process of the government by ensuring that persons in an advisory role [will] be able to express their opinions freely to agency decision makers' (Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 NY2d 131, 132 [quoting Matter of Sea Crest Constr. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD2d 546, 549]). Consistent with this limited aim to safeguard internal government consultations and deliberations, the exemption does not apply when the requested material consists of 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law 87[g][I]. Factual data, therefore, simply means objective information, in contrast to opinions, ideas, or advice exchanged as part of the consultative or deliberative process of government decision making (see, Matter of Johnson Newspaper Corp. v. Stainkamp, 94 AD2d 825, 827, affd on op below, 61 NY2d 958; Matter of Miracle Mile Assocs. v. Yudelson, 68 AD2d 176, 181-182).
"Against this backdrop, we conclude that the complaint follow-up reports contain substantial factual information available pursuant to the provisions of FOIL. Sections of the report are devoted to such purely factual data as: the names, addresses, and physical descriptions of crime victims, witnesses, and perpetrators; a checklist that indicates whether the victims and witnesses have been interviewed and shown photos, whether crime scenes have been photographed and dusted for fingerprints, and whether neighborhood residents have been canvassed for information; and a blank space denominated 'details' in which the officer records the particulars of any action taken in connection with the investigation.
"However, the Police Department argues that any witness statements contained in the reports, in particular, are not 'factual' because there is no assurance of the statements' accuracy and reliability. We decline to read such a reliability requirement into the phrase 'factual data', as the dissent would have us do, and conclude that a witness statement constitutes factual data insofar as it embodies a factual account of the witness's observations. Such a statement, moreover, is far removed from the type of internal government exchange sought to be protected by the intra-agency exemption (see, Matter of Ingram v. Axelrod, 90 AD2d 568, 569 [ambulance records, list of interviews, and reports of interviews available under FOIL as 'factual data']). By contrast, any impressions, recommendations, or opinions recorded in the complaint follow-up report would not constitute factual data and would be exempt from disclosure. The holding herein is only that these reports are not categorically exempt as intra-agency material. Indeed, the Police Department is entitled to withhold complaint follow-up reports, or specific portions thereof, under any other applicable exemption, such as the law-enforcement exemption or the public-safety exemption, as long as the requisite particularized showing is made" [Gould, Scott and DeFelice v. New York City Police Department, 89 NY2d 267, 276-277 (1996); emphasis added by the Court].
Based on the foregoing, the agency could not claim that the complaint reports can be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they constitute intra-agency materials. However, the Court was careful to point out that other grounds for denial might apply in consideration of those records, as well as others that you requested.
For instance, 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.
Often 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.
Third, 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, you have asked if a detailed index similar to that required in Vaughn v. Rosen (484 F.2d 920), a decision rendered under the federal Freedom of Information Act, would be available to you. Please be advised that there is nothing in the New York Freedom of Information Law or judicial decision construing that statute that would require that a denial at the agency level identify every record withheld or include a description of the reason for withholding each document. Such a requirement has been imposed under the federal Freedom of Information Act, which may involve the preparation of a so-called "Vaughn index." Such an index provides an analysis of documents withheld by an agency as a means of justifying a denial and insuring that the burden of proof remains on the agency. Again, I am unaware of any decision involving the New York Freedom of Information Law that requires the preparation of a similar index.
Further, one decision suggests the preparation of that kind of analysis might in some instances subvert the purpose for which exemptions are claimed. In that decision, an inmate requested records referring to him as a member of organized crime or an escape risk. In affirming a denial by a lower court, the Appellate Division found that:
"All of these documents were inter-agency or intra-agency materials exempted under Public Officers Law section 87(2)(g) and some were materials the disclosure of which could endanger the lives or safety of certain individuals, and thus were exempted under Public Officers Law section 87(2)(f). The failure of the respondents and the Supreme Court, Westchester County, to disclose the underlying facts contained in these documents so as to establish that they did not fall 'squarely within the ambit of [the] statutory exemptions' (Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health and Hosps. Corp., 62 NY 2d 75, 83; Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY 2d 567, 571), did not constitute error. To make such disclosure would effectively subvert the purpose of these statutory exemptions which is to preserve the confidentiality of this information" [Nalo v. Sullivan, 125 AD 2d 311, 312 (1987)].
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman