November 1, 1996
Mr. Carlos Samper
P.O. Box 700
Wallkill, NY 12589-0700
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. Samper:
I have received your letter of October 14. You wrote that you are interested in obtaining "statistics of those that have been found guilty of criminal actions in the State of New York, but who were later found to be not guilty of those charges." You wrote that you are "particularly interested in those convicted of murder, later found to be innocent - through say, the 1950's till now."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, it is noted at the outset that the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records. Section 89(3) of that statute provides in part that an agency is not required to create a record in response to a request. I point out, however, that §86(4) of the Freedom of Information Law defines the term "record" expansively to include:
"any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."
Based upon the language quoted above, if information is maintained in some physical form, it would in my opinion constitute a "record" subject to rights of access conferred by the Law. Further, the definition of "record" includes specific reference to computer tapes and discs, and it was held some fifteen years ago that "[i]nformation is increasingly being stored in computers and access to such data should not be restricted merely because it is not in printed form" [Babigian v. Evans, 427 NYS 2d 688, 691 (1980); aff'd 97 AD 2d 992 (1983); see also, Szikszay v. Buelow, 436 NYS 2d 558 (1981)].
When information is maintained electronically, it has been advised that if the information sought is available under the Freedom of Information Law and may be retrieved by means of existing computer programs, an agency is required to disclose the information. In that kind of situation, the agency in my view would merely be retrieving data that it has the capacity to retrieve. Disclosure may be accomplished either by printing out the data on paper or perhaps by duplicating the data on another storage mechanism, such as a computer tape or disk. On the other hand, if information sought can be retrieved from a computer or other storage medium only by means of new programming or the alteration of existing programs, those steps would, in my opinion, be the equivalent of creating a new record. As stated earlier, since §89(3) does not require an agency to create a record, I do not believe that an agency would be required to reprogram or develop new programs to retrieve information that would otherwise be available [see Guerrier v. Hernandez-Cuebas, 165 AD 2d 218 (1991)].
If the information that you seek does not now exist or cannot be retrieved or extracted without significant reprogramming, an agency would not, in my opinion, be obliged to develop new programs or modify its existing programs in an effort to generate the data of your interest.
Assuming that the statistics that you seek do exist or can be generated, I believe that they would be available, for §87(2)(g)(i) of the Freedom of Information Law requires that "intra-agency materials" consisting of "statistical or factual tabulations or data" must be disclosed.
Lastly, if any agency maintains the statistics of your interest, I believe that it would be the Division of Criminal Justice Services. It is suggested that a request be directed to the records access officer at that agency, which is located at Executive Park Tower, Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, NY 12203.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman