FOIL AO 19701 January 4, 2019
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
CC: FOIL Unit, Division of State Police (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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, except as otherwise indicated.
I have received the materials that we discussed and apologize for the delay in response. You have sought an advisory opinion concerning your right to gain access to records relating to a fire that occurred at Cornell University in 1967 that left nine students dead, including your cousin. No one has ever been charged, and information regarding investigation of the event is sparse.
It is your understanding that the most recent investigative activity was conducted by the New York State Police in 2015, and you requested records concerning its investigation. Both the request and the ensuing appeal were denied based on the contention that the investigation is “on-going.” In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, although the fire occurred in 1967, several years prior to the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), existing records maintained by or for a government agency pertaining to the event are subject to rights of access. FOIL applies to all agency records, and §86(4) defines the term “record” expansively to mean “any information kept, held, filed, produced or reproduced by, with or for an agency…in any physical form whatsoever…” Therefore, even if records were prepared or acquired prior to the enactment of FOIL in 1974, they fall within the coverage of that statute [see e.g., Capital Newspapers v. Whalen, 69 NY2d 246 (1987)].
Second, FOIL 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 (j) 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, expressed its general view of the intent of FOIL in Gould v. New York City Police Department [87 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, the Police Department contended that certain reports 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 that referenced in response to your requests. 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.).
In the context of your requests, the State Police have engaged in a blanket denial of access in a manner which, in my view, is equally inappropriate. I am not suggesting that the records sought must be disclosed in full. Rather, based on the direction given by the Court of Appeals in several decisions, the records must be reviewed by the State Police for the purpose of identifying those portions of the records that might fall within the scope of one or more of the grounds for denial of access. As the Court stated later in the decision: "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., 277; emphasis added).
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), most of which would no longer exist.
At this juncture, more than fifty years after the fire occurred, it is difficult to envision how disclosure would “interfere” with an investigation or judicial proceeding. Even if there is a suspect, and even if that person knows that he/she is a suspect, what could that person do to upset the investigation? There is likely no evidence to hide or alter, and there may be no action that could be taken to evade detection or effective law enforcement. Further, in consideration of the passage of time, a suspect may be deceased. If there is a suspect, an arrest and a trial, proving that disclosure would deprive that person of a fair trial, particularly in consideration of the passage of time and the obligation to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, would also be problematic. Insofar as disclosure would identify a confidential source or witness, it is possible that disclosure would constitute “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” [§87(2)(b)]. In that event, identifying details could be redacted to protect one’s privacy.
It is likely that any investigative techniques or procedures employed by law enforcement officials would be “routine”, in that disclosure would not enable a person to evade detection or endanger the lives or safety of others [see Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY2d 567 (1979)]. The matter relates to a fire that occurred decades ago, not an effort to deal with terrorism or the security of a community.
To be fair, I point out that a different exception may be relevant in determining rights of access to records. Section 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 our view be withheld.
The Court of Appeals in Gould, supra, analyzed the provision quoted above and found 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, supra, 276-277 (1996); emphasis added by the Court].
In short, portions of communications between or among agency officials consisting of advice, opinions or recommendations may be withheld. However, other aspects of those communications consisting of statistical or factual information, must be disclosed, except to the extent that a separate exception may properly be asserted.I hope that I have been of assistance.