February 12, 2003
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 and the materials attached to it. You have sought an advisory opinion pertaining to rights of access to "incident reports" prepared by law enforcement agencies.
The issue apparently arose due to comments offered by the Onondaga County District Attorney, William Fitzpatrick, following an incident in which a gun was confiscated from a person who was about to board an airplane at Hancock Airport. Following the arrest, one of your reporters indicated that the District Attorney stated that: "It will be put to bed once and for all this myth that when there is a felony arrest the public is entitled to see police reports. They're not. And they won't in the future." Your reporter added that "Questioned afterward, Fitzpatrick repeated to the TV, radio and print reporters that 'police reports' are not public documents." The District Attorney apparently later clarified his statement and told your reporter that arrest reports are public but that other police reports are not.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, there is no provision in the Freedom of Information Law or any other statute of which I am aware that directly refers to or mentions police "incident reports." I note, however, that the Freedom of Information Law as originally enacted listed categories of records that were accessible and that one of those categories involved "police blotters and booking records." Issues arose relative to those records because they are not legally defined. While many are familiar with the phrases "police blotter" and "booking record", the contents of those records differ from one police department the next. Similarly, the contents of incident reports differ from one department to the next, and from one event to another.
Second, the records at issue in my view are, as a group, neither exempt from disclosure nor necessarily available in their entirety.
As you are aware, 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 Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, reiterated its general view of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law in Gould v. New York City Police Department [89 NY2d 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, a police department contended that certain reports, so-called "complaint follow up reports" that are similar in nature to incident reports, could be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they fall within the exception regarding intra-agency materials, §87(2)(g). 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), and 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, stating 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.).
Considering the matter in relation to issues that arose concerning the traditional police blotter or equivalent records, I believe that such records would, based on case law, be accessible. In Sheehan v. City of Binghamton [59 AD2d 808 (1977)], it was determined, based on custom and usage, that a police blotter is a log or diary in which events reported by or to a police department are recorded. That kind of record would consist of a summary of events or occurrences, it would not include investigative information, and would be available under the law.
If a police blotter, incident reports or other records, regardless of their characterization, include more information than the traditional police blotter, it is possible that portions of those records, depending on their contents and the effects of disclosure, may properly be withheld. The remainder, however, would be available. For instance, the fact that a robbery of a convenience store occurred and is recorded in a paper or electronic document would clearly be available, even if no one has been arrested or arraigned; the names of witnesses or suspects, however, might properly be withheld for a time or perhaps permanently, depending on the facts. The fact that an arson fire occurred and is recorded would represent information accessible under the law; records indicating the course of the investigation might, perhaps for a time, justifiably be withheld.
In considering the kinds of records at issue, several of the grounds for denial might be pertinent and serve to enable a law enforcement agency to withhold portions, but not the entire contents of records.
For example, the provision at issue in a decision cited earlier, Gould, §87(2)(g), 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" [id., 276-277 (1996); emphasis added by the Court].
Based on the foregoing, the agency could not claim that the complaint reports may be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they constitute intra-agency materials. The Court also found that portions of reports reflective of information supplied by members of the public are not inter-agency or intra-agency communications, for those persons are not officers or employees of a government agency (id., 277). However, the Court was careful to point out that other grounds for denial might apply in consideration of the contents of the records and the effects of disclosure.
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, a witness, or perhaps a victim.
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.
In sum, incident reports, by their nature, differ in content from one situation or incident to another. To suggest that they may be withheld in their entirety, categorically, in every instance, is in my opinion contrary to both the language of the Freedom of Information Law and its judicial construction by the state's highest court. As indicated in the preceding commentary, the extent to which those records may be withheld is dependent upon their content and the effects of disclosure. I am not suggesting that incident reports or similar records must in every instance be disclosed; I concur, however, with your statement that determining rights of access to records by an agency should be likened to the use of a "scalpel and not a meat ax."
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman Executive Director
cc: Hon. William Fitzpatrick