Newsday sought access to records via the New York Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). The records requested were in response to potential police misconduct and the death of Jo’Anna Bird. Following the murder of Ms. Bird, the Nassau County Police Department’s (NCPD) Internal Affairs Unit investigated the circumstances leading up to Bird’s murder. The results of that report became the subject of litigation and, eventually, the report and the contents of the report were declared confidential by a Federal Court. Those who were privy to the report were forced into silence under the threat of contempt. Here, “[t]he NCPD denied the FOIL request based, inter alia, on a determination that the requested records fell within the statutory exemption under Civil Rights Law §50-a. In a determination dated March 12, 2013, the FOIL appeals officer of the NCPD denied the petitioner’s administrative appeal. The petitioner commenced this proceeding pursuant to CPLR article 78 to review the determination dated March 12, 2013.”

Were these records exempt from FOIL? “In a proceeding pursuant to CPLR article 78 to compel the production of material pursuant to FOIL, the agency denying access has the burden of demonstrating that the material requested falls within a statutory exemption, which exemptions are narrowly construed” Pp. 1 (citing Public Officers Law §89[5][e], [f]; Matter of West Harlem Bus. Group v. Empire State Dev. Corp., 13 NY3d 882, 885; Matter of Data Tree, LLC v. Romaine, 9 NY3d 454, 462)). FOIL “declares all agency records open to the public unless they fall within one of eight categories of exemptions.” Westchester Rockland Newspapers, Inc. v. Kimball, 50 N.Y.2d 575 at 580, 430 N.Y.S.2d 574 at 577, citing Public Officers Law § 87(2). Given the statute’s broad objectives, the Court of Appeals has consistently held that “ ‘FOIL is to be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly interpreted so that the public is granted maximum access to the records of government.’ ” Russo v. Nassau County Community College, 81 N.Y.2d 690 at 697, 603 N.Y.S.2d 294 at 297, quoting Capital Newspapers v. Whalen, 69 N.Y.2d 246 at 252, 513 N.Y.S.2d 367 at 371, “By their very nature such objectives cannot hope to be attained unless [access to government records] becomes the rule rather than the exception.” Westchester Rockland Newspapers, Inc. v. Kimball, 50 N.Y.2d 575 at 579, 430 N.Y.S.2d 574 at 576.

The government must articulate a basis for the denial. Indeed, this showing requires the entity resisting disclosure to “articulate a particularized and specific justification for denying access'” (Matter of Dilworth v. Westchester County Dept. of Correction, 93 AD3d 722, 724, quoting Matter of Capital Newspapers Div. of Hearst Corp. v. Burns, 67 NY2d 562, 566). “Conclusory assertions that certain records fall within a statutory exemption are not sufficient; evidentiary support is needed” (Matter of Dilworth v. Westchester County Dept. of Correction, 93 AD3d at 724). “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” (Matter of Gould v. New York City Police Dept., 89 NY2d 267, 275).

Although the wrongful death action of Ms. Bird is resolved, allegations of police misconduct impact the citizenry of Nassau County. Nassau The matter is remitted to the Supreme Court for an in camera inspection pursuant to Civil Rights Law Section 50-a.

The case is Newsday v. Nassau County Police, 829313, NYLJ 1202749869808, at 1 (App. Div., 2nd, Decided February 10, 2016).

If you have been a victim of police misconduct or misconduct perpetrated by any municipal agency, please call the Law Firm of Vaughn, Weber & Prakope, PLLC at (516) 858-2620 to speak to a criminal attorney today!

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