December 14, 2006
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 correspondence and apologize for the delay in response. You referred to requests for records relating to a speeding ticket that were made to both the Albany County Sheriff’s Department and the Division of State Police. Although the County granted access to the records sought, the State Police denied your request in its entirety. Following an initial denial of your request, you appealed, and the determination by the State Police appeals officer stated that:
“...we are unable to conduct a search of our files for some of the records you seek based on the information provided. The remaining records you seek are either not maintained on file by this agency or are records that were compiled for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed, would interfere with judicial proceedings.”
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the portion of the response indicating that a search could not be made for some of the records based on the information that you provided appears to relate to §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law, which requires that an applicant “reasonably describe” the records sought. In short, whether or the extent to which a request reasonably describes records often is dependent on the nature of an agency’s filing or recordkeeping system. If, for example, records are filed alphabetically by name, and a request is made for records pertaining to a particular person, the request would likely reasonably describe the records. However, if the same records are requested by means of dates, the records might not be retrievable without searching, in essence, for the needle in the haystack, and the request in that instance would not reasonably describe the records.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, the response by the State Police does not indicate in any way which among the records could not be located based on the terms of your request. Here I point out that the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government, which have the force of law, state that an agency’s records access officer has the duty of assuring that agency personnel:
“Assist persons seeking records to identify the records sought, if necessary, and when appropriate, indicate the manner in which the records are filed, retrieved or generated to assist persons in reasonably describing records” [21 NYCRR §1401.2(b)(2)].
It does not appear that an effort was made by the Division of State Police to assist you in reasonably describing the records of your interest.
Second, when an agency indicates that it does not maintain or cannot locate a record, an applicant for the record may seek a certification to that effect. Section 89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law provides in part that, in such a situation, on request, an agency "shall certify that it does not have possession of such record or that such record cannot be found after diligent search." If you consider it worthwhile to do so, you could seek such a certification.
Third, insofar as the State Police maintain and can locate records equivalent or analogous to those made available by Albany County, I believe that there would be an equal obligation to disclose them. Further, based on a judicial decision that dealt with similar or perhaps the same records that involved the Division of State Police, Capruso v. New York State Police (Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, July 11, 2001), I believe that the records in question must be disclosed in great measure, if not in their entirety. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
Perhaps most importantly, 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. It is emphasized that the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the exceptions that follow. In my view, the phrase quoted in the preceding sentence evidences a recognition on the part of the Legislature that a single record or report, for example, might include portions that are available under the statute, as well as portions that might justifiably be withheld. That being so, I believe that it also imposes an obligation on an agency to review records sought, in their entirety, to determine which portions, if any, might properly be withheld or deleted prior to disclosing the remainder.
The state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, reiterated and expressed its general view of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law in Gould v. New York City Police Department [87 NY 2d 267 (1996)], stating that:
"To ensure maximum access to government records, the 'exemptions are to be narrowly construed, with the burden resting on the agency to demonstrate that the requested material indeed qualifies for exemption' (Matter of Hanig v. State of New York Dept. of Motor Vehicles, 79 N.Y.2d 106, 109, 580 N.Y.S.2d 715, 588 N.E.2d 750 see, Public Officers Law § 89[b]). As this Court has stated, '[o]nly where the material requested falls squarely within the ambit of one of these statutory exemptions may disclosure be withheld' (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 N.Y.2d, 567, 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463)" (id., 275).
Just as significant, the Court in Gould repeatedly specified that a categorical denial of access to records is inconsistent with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law. In that case, the agency contended that complaint follow up reports, also known as "DD5's", could be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they fall within the exception regarding intra-agency materials, §87(2)(g), an exception separate from those cited in response to your request. The Court, however, wrote that: "Petitioners contend that because the complaint follow-up reports contain factual data, the exemption does not justify complete nondisclosure of the reports. We agree" (id., 276). The Court then stated as a general principle that "blanket exemptions for particular types of documents are inimical to FOIL's policy of open government" (id., 275). The Court also offered guidance to agencies and lower courts in determining rights of access and referred to several decisions it had previously rendered, directing that:
"...to invoke one of the exemptions of section 87(2), the agency must articulate 'particularized and specific justification' for not disclosing requested documents (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, supra, 47 N.Y.2d, at 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463). If the court is unable to determine whether withheld documents fall entirely within the scope of the asserted exemption, it should conduct an in camera inspection of representative documents and order disclosure of all nonexempt, appropriately redacted material (see, Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 N.Y.2d 131, 133, 490 N.Y.S. 2d, 488, 480 N.E.2d 74; Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., supra, 62 N.Y.2d, at 83, 476 N.Y.S.2d 69, 464 N.E.2d 437)" (id.).
In Capruso, supra, the request involved the “operator’s manual for any radar speed detection device used” by the New York State Police and the New York City Police Department. The Division of State Police contended that disclosure would interfere with the ability to effectively enforce the law concerning speeding. Nevertheless, following an in camera inspection of the records, a private review by the judge, it was found that the Division could not meet it burden of proving that the harmful effects of disclosure appearing in the exceptions to rights of access would in fact arise.
In its attempt to deny access to the records, the Division relied upon §87(2)(e)(i) and (iv) of the Freedom of Information Law as a means of justifying its denial. Those provisions permit an agency to withhold records that are “compiled for law enforcement purposes” to the extent that disclosure would “i. interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings” or “iv. reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures, except routine techniques and procedures.”
From my perspective, records prepared by manufacturer of a radar device could not be characterized as having been “compiled for law enforcement purposes. If my contention is accurate, §87 (2)(e) would not be applicable as a means of withholding those records.
Even if that provision is applicable, the court in Capruso determined that a denial of access would not be sustained. The leading decision dealing with law enforcement manuals and similar records detailing investigative techniques and procedures is Fink v. Lefkowitz [47 NY2d 567 (1979)], which was cited in Gould, supra, and ] 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)."
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 ). 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).
As the Court of Appeals has suggested, to the extent that the records in question include descriptions of investigative techniques which if disclosed would enable potential lawbreakers to evade detection or endanger the lives or safety of law enforcement personnel or others [see also, Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(f)], a denial of access would be appropriate.
In consideration the direction given by the state’s highest court in Fink, the court in Capruso rejected the contentions offered by the law enforcement agencies and determined that:
“These arguments fail to establish a casual link as to how release of the information in the manufacturers’ operational manual would enable a speeding driver to avoid detection. Similarly, absent from the affidavits is an explanation as to how the knowledge of the testing procedures used by the police to ensure the device is functioning properly would enable such driver to escape detection. Furthermore, the affidavits lack proof as to how the information in the manual would enable the use of a jamming device which could not otherwise be used. Thus, the claim that the release of these manuals would result in drivers engaging in dangerous behavior solely to avoid detection is speculative.
The State also objects to the release of the State Police Radar and Aerial Speed Enforcement Training Manuals as they contain ‘operational and legal considerations.’ However, as the Court of Appeals stated in Fink v. Lefkowitz, supra at 571, ‘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.’ The Court explained, the question 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,’ (citations omitted) Id.
Thus, after an in camera review, the City and State have failed to establish that the release of these manuals would allow motorists who are violating traffic laws to tailor their conduct to evade detection.”
Based on the foregoing, I believe that the records in question must be disclosed.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: William J. Callahan
Captain Laurie Wagner