January 25, 2021

Obtaining police department records concerning a traffic accident pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law

As the Court of Appeals held in Fappiano v New York City Police Dept., 95 NY2d 738, "[a]ll government records are presumptively open for public inspection unless specifically exempted from disclosure as provided in the Public Officers Law" and further explained in Gould v New York City Police Dept., 89 NY2d 267, a government agency may withhold records sought pursuant to FOIL only if it "articulate[s] particularized and specific justification for not disclosing requested documents."

In this CPLR Article 78 proceeding Supreme Court denied a petition seeking, among other things, to compel the New York City Police Department [NYPD] to disclose certain records concerning a traffic accident pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law.

NYPD had relied on the FOIL exemption from disclosure records that were compiled "for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed, would . . . interfere with . . . judicial proceedings," contending that disclosing the records demanded "would tip the hand of the Traffic Violations Bureau's [TVD] prosecuting attorney or prevent the prosecutor from testing the recollection of witnesses."

The Appellate Division unanimously reversed the Supreme Court's ruling "on the law."

Noting that TVB was an administrative agency that was legislatively created to adjudicate traffic violation charges for the purpose of reducing caseloads of courts in New York City, the court said that the accused motorist has a right to be represented by counsel and the administrative law judge presiding over the hearing must determine whether the police officer has established the charges by clear and convincing evidence.

Holding that NYPD failed to meet its burden of showing a particularized justification for withholding the records at issue within the meaning of the interference exemption provision of FOIL in this instance, the Appellate Division's decision noted that the recollection of witnesses and the basis of their testimony "would certainly be determined by questioning and cross examination at the hearing" and the court opined that NYPD's "blanket denial of document release fell short of meeting its admittedly low burden."

Click here to access the Appellate Division's decision.

 

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