My very first FOIL was fulfilled by the County only after I complained to the NYS Committee on Open Government many years ago, and the Committee interfered.
Yet, Delaware County did not learn its lessons and continues to violate FOIL, now under its new Acting County Attorney Amy Merklen.
Here is the webpage of the County's Sheriff's Department stating conditions of access to records under FOIL.
The conditions violate FOIL in two areas:
- Fees, and
- a policy of blocking release of public records during the pendency of a criminal proceeding.
- If people ask for scanned copies, they get the records for free, if the agency has a scanner that help the agency scan records as fast as the agency can produce copies. Of course, the County at this time is stalling my demand to certify that they do not have an inventory of scanning equipment, but I assure FOIL inquirers with the County that I have seen a fast-speed scanner in the County Department of Social Services with my own eyes, and, unless it has been stolen or sold since then (and I FOILed the County about the movement of printing, scanning and copying equipment, too), it should still be there, so the County cannot pretend it has nothing to scan records for purposes of FOIL requests.
- People can come and review ORIGINALS of records on site, during business hours of the agency. No fee should be charged for that.
- People can bring their own copier or scanner to the agency and make their own copies or scans with their own equipment from the originals of public records. No fee should be charged for that. Any smart phone or tablet can take pretty good pictures of records, and there is also such a technological wonder as wand scanners with wifi and large expandable memory - available in stores, as far as I know, under $100.
That is an illegal policy.
There is a presumption of disclosure in Freedom of Information Law, and an agency can only deny access to records based on a provision that is in that statute.
Of course, the Delaware County Sheriff's Department did not cite to any statutory provision for its policy of denying access to public records "in regards to" a pending criminal case until the criminal case concludes.
The Sheriff CAN deny access to records in connection with a criminal case in response to a FOIL request if:
- such disclosure will interfere with a criminal investigation - but a court case is STARTED only when the investigation is FINISHED, so that section does not apply; or if
- such disclosure will interfere with judicial administration, with a pending court case - that reason must be stated each time, in response to each specific FOIL request, with a specific explanation as to how request for specific records in a specific FOIL request would interfere with a specific criminal case. This exemption is not a blanket policy exemption allowing denial of access to records "in regards" to any pending criminal case.
There are, of course, records that cannot be disclosed during the pendency - or even after conclusion - of a criminal case.
- materials of the grand jury proceedings;
- documents subject to attorney-client privilege (here, the attorney is the prosecutor, and the "client" is, presumably, the police);
- documents pertaining to trial strategy (correspondence regarding the trial between the District Attorney and the Sheriff);
- possibly, but not necessarily, list of witnesses to be called at trial;
- records disclosing the identity of witnesses who are confidential informants;
- investigative techniques of law enforcement which, if disclosed, will thwart future investigations or jeopardize lives;
- medical or mental health records of a detained criminal defendant.
But, that's about all.
And, the presumption of disclosure still applies to records sought under FOIL, even if they are "related to litigation".
The Committee on Open Government issued an advisory opinion on that same topic, citing to some New York Court of Appeals cases on the subject:
"FOIL does not require that the party requesting records make any showing of need, good faith or legitimate purpose; while its purpose may be to shed light on governmental decision-making, its ambit is not confined to records actually used in the decision-making process (Matter of Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 581.)
Full disclosure by public agencies is, under FOIL, a public right and in the public interest, irrespective of the status or need of the person making the request.
"CPLR article 31 proceeds under a different premise, and serves quite different concerns.
While speaking also of 'full disclosure' article 31 is plainly more restrictive than FOIL.
Access to records under CPLR depends on status and need.
With goals of promoting both the ascertainment of truth at trial and the prompt disposition of actions (Allen v. Crowell-Collier Pub. Co., 21 NY 2d 403, 407), discovery is at the outset limited to that which is 'material and necessary in the prosecution or defense of an action'" [see Farbman, supra, at 80].
CPLR 31 is the statute governing, in New York State, discovery in civil proceedings.
Discovery in criminal proceedings is governed by a different statute, but the applicability is the same.
Discovery is a right RESTRICTED to:
- status of the person in the court proceeding;
- need for disclosure;
- legitimacy of disclosure;
- relevance to the pending court case.
- a presumption of disclosure;
- for any purpose, legitimate or not;
- by any person, party to a pending litigation or not, local resident or not, American citizen or not, located within the U.S. or not;
- for any need, and without restriction to its "relevance" (as the Sheriff's Department said - "in regards to") whatever issue or whichever court case, pending or concluded.
Neither the Sheriff, not the Acting County Attorney have legislative power to re-write the Freedom of Information Law. And, their invented restrictions on FOIL requests in criminal cases are unlawful.
- presume disclosure, and,
- if the Sheriff's Department seeks to deny access to record,
- state clearly and specifically:
- the statute under which the exemption applies; and
- explain why that statutory exemption applies in this particular situation -
Or - should they be?