For over 45 years, New York’s Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”) has given individuals the right to obtain copies of records maintained by public agencies, including state and local governments, subject to certain exemptions. With the proliferation of email and other electronic communication methods, local governments often face a daunting administrative task of redacting exempt, non-public information from otherwise accessible records before releasing them in response to a FOIL request.
However, no such redactions are required when a record is subject to confidentiality under a federal or state statute. In such instances, the entire document should be withheld from disclosure. Examples of such “blanket” exemptions include records concerning the victim of a sexual offense, medical records, and questionnaires filled out by prospective jurors.
Under the decision issued by the Court of Appeals in New York Civil Liberties Union v. New York City Police Dep’t, 2018 WL 6492733 (Dec. 11, 2018), that list also includes police disciplinary records. The majority found that giving an agency the leeway to publicly disclose such records after redacting them would “eviscerate” the legislative framework established by Civil Rights Law § 50-a. That statute allows a court to lift confidentiality only after reviewing the records and giving interested parties an opportunity to be heard.
At the crux of this case, the majority rejects arguments made by the NYCLU and various amici that FOIL, which carries a powerful presumption in favor public access, should override Civil Rights Law § 50-a. In this battle of statutes, the majority holds that Section 50-a must prevail.